Case History: Tomás Gómez Membreño
On 9 January 2014, the Appeals Court of Comayagua suspended the case against human rights defender Tomás Gómez. He had been facing charges of usurpation of land, coercion, and causing more than $3 million in damages to DESA, a hydroelectric dam company.
Tomás Gómez Membreño is a member of Consejo Cívico de Organizaciones Indígenas Populares – COPINH (Civic Council of Popular Indigenous Organisations). COPINH is currently involved in a campaign for the defence of the Gualcarque river which is the site of a proposed dam to be built by the Honduran company FICOHSA and the multinational SINOHYDRO.
On 9 January 2014, the Appeals Court of Comayagua provisionally suspended the case against human rights defenders Ms Berta Cáceres and Messrs Tomás Gómez and Aureliano Molina. They had been facing charges of usurpation of land, coercion, and causing more than $3 million in damages to DESA, a hydroelectric dam company.
The Court further reversed a decision to displace the indigenous Lenca community from their ancestral lands, and revoked the arrest warrant which had been in place against the human rights defenders. No court date has been set for the final decision in the case.
Berta Cáceres is the general co-ordinator ofConsejo Cívico de Organizaciones Indígenas Populares – COPINH (Civic Council of Popular Indigenous Organisations). Tomás Gómez Membreño and Aureliano Molina are also members of COPINH. COPINH works on land, environmental and indigenous rights, particularly in relation to large-scale development projects.
While Front Line Defenders welcomes the provisional suspension of the case against the human rights defenders, it remains concerned that the case has not been permanently suspended. Front Line Defenders is further concerned that the case was brought to court in the first place, considering the fraught circumstances which lead to the charges, detailed in anurgent appeal by Front Line Defenders on 27 May 2013.
The case comes in the context of serious concerns in Honduras, and the region in general, that large-scale development projects are impinging on environmental rights and the rights of indigenous people, and that the principle of free, prior and informed consent is not being fully respected.
On 25 May 2013, just after 1pm, Ms Berta Cáceres, general co-ordinator of Consejo Cívico de Organizaciones Indígenas Populares – COPINH (Civic Council of Popular Indigenous Organisations) was conditionally released from her detention by Judge José Francisco Pineda Ayala del Juzgado in Santa Barbara, Western Honduras.
The human rights defender had been arrested the previous day along with Mr Tomás Gómez Membreño, who is also a member of COPINH. COPINH is currently involved in a campaign for the defence of the Gualcarque river which is the site of a proposed dam to be built by the Honduran company FICOHSA and the multinational SINOHYDRO.
On 24 May 2013, Berta Cáceres and Tomás Gómez Membreño were arrested in a military operation in the Agua Caliente sector of Santa Barbara. Twenty members of the engineering battalion based in the town of Siguatepeque stopped their car and conducted a search in a violent and aggressive manner, before requesting police backup. The police backup arrived in cars belonging to the companies responsible for the project which COPINH is currently opposing. The human rights defenders were informed that they were being arrested for possession of a weapon, supposedly found in the boot of their car. Whilst Tomás Gómez Membreño was released at 11pm that night, Berta Cáceres was placed in a cell and treated as a highly dangerous person.
Before her release, the Honduran Attorney General, Mr Nery Betancourt, directed the judge in the case to order Berta Cáceres to sign in at the court every Friday of the month, to ban her from leaving the country, and set a trial date for 13 June 2013. The organisation's car remains out of service.
Front Line Defenders is deeply concerned about the arbitrary arrest and detention, by the military, of Berta Cáceres and Tomás Gómez Membreño. It is felt that a dangerous precedent has been set with regard to the policing of the state by the military, and that the arrest of the two human rights defenders was motivated solely by their peaceful and legitimate work in defence of human rights in Honduras, particularly indigenous people's rights.