Environmental and indigenous rights defenders of Huehuetenango released
On 22 July 2016, the High Risk Tribunal A in Guatemala City ordered the immediate release of Messrs Francisco Juan Pedro, Adalberto Villatoro, Arturo Pablo Juan, Domingo Baltazar, Mynor López, Bernardo Ermitaño López and Rigoberto Juárez. The seven environmental rights defenders and indigenous leaders had been detained for between one and three years on unfounded charges related to their peaceful opposition to extractive and hydroelectric projects in Huehuetenango. The cases of the "7 of Huehuetenango" had been recently regrouped into one process with public oral hearings having started on 6 July.
On 24 March 2015, environmental rights defenders and indigenous leaders Rigoberto Juárez and Domingo Baltazar, from Santa Eulalia, were taken into custody as they completed a lobbying mission to the Human Rights Council of the Public Ministry in Guatemala City. The arrest was based on false accusations that stated the defenders were responsible forleading a group of people to destroy equipment belonging to a hydroelectric project in San Luis, jurisdiction of Santa Eulalia, in December 2014. Although they were ordered to be placed under house arrest for these accusations, they were rearrested on the same day under different accusations, for allegedly organising roadblocks to demand the release of other detainees from Barillas, Huehuetenango. The two human rights defenders remained a total of 486 days in prison before a decision of the High Risk Tribunal A on 22 July 2016 ordered their immediate release.
On 22 July 2016, the High Risk Tribunal A in Guatemala City ordered the immediate release of Francisco Juan Pedro, Adalberto Villatoro, Arturo Pablo Juan, Domingo Baltazar, Mynor López, Bernardo Ermitaño López y Rigoberto Juárez. The seven environmental rights defenders and indigenous leaders had been detained for between one and three years on unfounded charges related to their peaceful opposition to extractive and hydroelectric projects in Huehuetenango. The cases of the "7 of Huehuetenango" had been recently regrouped into one process with public oral hearings having started on 6 July.
The human rights defenders have acted as mediators in conflicts between indigenous communities and state authorities, particularly regarding government supported hydroelectric projects in Santa Cruz Barillas. The construction of the latter begun in 2008 by the company Hidro Santa Cruz (the Guatemalan subsidiary of a Spanish company).
On September 2013, human rights defender Mynor Manuel López was taken into custody after unsubstantiated accusations were made against him by employees of the local subsidiary of energy company Ecoener Hidralia Energía. He remained in detention for almost three years in Huehuetenango prison. Between January and June 2015, fellow human rights defenders Francisco Juan Pedro, Adalberto Villatoro, Arturo Pablo Juan, Domingo Baltazar, Bernardo Ermitaño López and Rigoberto Juárez were also arrested on the basis of unsubstantiated accusations in what appeared to be retaliation for their peaceful human rights work and their roles as traditional indigenous authorities in their communities.
The accusations levelled against the defenders were seemingly motivated by their participation in various peaceful demonstrations in Santa Cruz Barillas, Huehuetenango. The complaints submitted against the defenders were put forward by employees and public officials of the Justice Administration Center (Centro de Administración de Justicia, CAJ) of Santa Eulalia, the former mayor of Santa Eulalia and workers of the company Hidro Santa Cruz. The Prosecutor's Office largely based its investigation on a document issued by the company Hidro Santa Cruz, in which it accused the six human rights defenders of forming part of a criminal network in Huehuetenango. The defenders remained in prison during the entire judicial process.
On 22 July 2016, the High Risk Tribunal A in Guatemala City, presided over by Judge Yassmín Barrios, ordered the immediate release of the "7 of Huehuetenango ". In a unanimous decision the judges absolved Francisco Juan Pedro, Adalberto Villatoro, Arturo Pablo Juan, Domingo Baltazar and Mynor López of all charges. By majority, the judges declared Bernardo Ermitaño López guilty of 'obstructing legal action' and, in the case of Rigoberto Juárez, found him guilty of 'coercion'. However, the judges ordered their release due to time served in detention. Presiding Judge Yassmín Barrios, an internationally renowned jurist celebrated for her historic verdict in the genocide case against former head of State General Efraín Ríos Montt, publicly stated her disagreement with fellow judges in their decision to uphold the charges against the two human rights defenders. Judge Barrios also recalled the role of judges in upholding truth and justice, as opposed to being tools of private interests.
Rigoberto Juárez and Domingo Baltazar are still to face trial on another set of charges, also related to a previous demonstration in front of the San Luis hydroelectric dam. The first hearing is scheduled for April 2017.
Human rights defenders in Guatemala are systematically subject to baseless criminal proceedings with the aim of hindering their work, delegitimising their causes and damaging their credibility. Peaceful human rights work centred around organising and mobilising communities to advocate for common interests are portrayed as 'riotous' and 'disorderly'. According to the UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms of Indigenous Peoples, "one of the more serious human rights protection deficiencies in recent years is the trend towards the use of laws and the justice system to penalize and criminalize social protest activities and legitimate demands made by indigenous organizations and movements in defence of their rights.”
The observations of the UN Special Rapporteur are echoed by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, whose 2015 report on "Criminalisation of Human Rights Defenders" identifies the use of arbitrary detention as a mechanism to impede the work of human rights defenders at moments that are crucial to the causes they advocate for. The Commission also identified a strategy whereby defenders are charged with serious offences, such as murder or kidnapping, in order to secure their indefinite detention as they await trial.
Front Line Defenders welcomes the decision of High Risk Tribunal A to release all seven human rights defenders after a protracted and unjustified detention; however it condemns the decision to uphold the charges against Bernardo Ermitaño López and Rigoberto Juárez, and expects that, in accordance with the State's international obligations, the human rights defenders who remained unfairly in prison will be properly compensated.