Honduras: Stop Blocking Human Rights Inquiries
A column of Honduran police in riot gear march in front of the Brazilian embassy premises in Tegucigalpa on Oct. 15. (Photo: Orlando Sierra / AFP-Getty Images)
The international community should strongly back the efforts of prosecutors in the human rights unit of the Honduras Attorney General's office to investigate army and police abuses in Honduras and to overturn a decree by the de facto government that severely restricts freedoms of speech and assembly, Human Rights Watch said.
The organization also called on the international community to oppose any amnesty for human rights violations as part of the transition back to democratic rule. Deposed President Manuel Zelaya and the de facto government of Honduras are now engaged in negotiations about such a transition, and have announced that an agreement may be imminent.
Since the military ousted Zelaya on June 28, the small human rights unit of the Office of the Attorney General has begun investigations into numerous cases of killings, alleged excessive use of force by security officials, and illegal and arbitrary detentions. The unit has also filed motions objecting to a decree limiting freedoms of the press and assembly, which the de facto government has used to bar two media outlets from broadcasting. But the unit has met with resistance from their superiors in the Attorney General's Office as well as acts of obstruction, including direct threats, from members of the armed forces.
"If anyone questions the damage that the de facto government has done to Honduras's democratic institutions it's clearly illustrated by these cases," said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. "And by obstructing the investigations, the public security forces are thumbing their noses at the rule of law."
Human Rights Watch representatives visited Honduras this month and documented the serious obstacles human rights unit prosecutors have been facing in carrying out their investigations. In several cases the security forces have taken actions that have obstructed investigations.
On Sept. 30, two members of the human rights unit went to an army battalion headquarters as part of their investigation into the forced closing of two media outlets on Sept. 28. The army refused to let them enter or to do an inventory of the equipment army personnel had confiscated from the outlets. The prosecutors have raised the issue with their superiors in the Attorney General's Office, and are preparing a motion against the officers who barred their entry, but they have yet to obtain access to the battalion headquarters. On numerous occasions, security forces have denied the head of the human rights unit, Sandra Ponce, access to media outlets that they have occupied.
Army members involved in investigations have refused to comply with legally mandated time limits to respond to inquiries, telling prosecutors that they are too busy. Prosecutors from the human rights unit say police and military personnel verbally abuse them, including making direct threats such as, "I'm going to shoot you" during protest marches or while they are investigating alleged abuses following the marches.
In early July, during an investigation into the military shutdown of Radio Progreso, a radio station in Tegucigalpa that was occupied by the army on June 28, one army officer told a member of the human rights unit, "I wish I were in the Cold War, the days of Pinochet, the days when you could just disappear (someone)". The prosecutor interpreted this as a direct threat.
In some cases, prosecutors also have faced difficulties in conducting investigations due to decisions by their superiors in the Office of the Attorney General.
For example, prosecutors investigating the death of Isis Obed Murillo, a 19-year-old shot during demonstrations outside Tegucigalpa's airport on July 5, say their superiors have asked for a new round of ballistics tests, after the first tests demonstrated that the shots that killed Obed Murillo came from an area on the runway where army troops were stationed. Prosecutors had also found over 150 shell casings matching the type of ammunition that the army used that day. The unit's findings contradicted not only the army's claims but also those of the government's human rights ombudsman, Ramón Custodio, who said the army only used rubber bullets during the demonstration. In a July 8 news release, Human Rights Watch pointed out that even rubber bullets can have lethal force and should not have been used, but that in any case the visual evidence suggested that some of the soldiers were using live ammunition.
In the last month, Attorney General Luis Alfredo Rubí has requested that the human rights unit submit petitions for his review before it files them in court. This new procedure has resulted in the delay of at least one important case — a petition against the army for taking over the installations of the Canal 36 television station on June 28 — for over two weeks, as Rubí's office examines its merits.
Several other investigations continue at varying speeds, including investigations into security forces' alleged gang rape of a woman in San Pedro Sula during a protest march, as well as two deaths during demonstrations, a shooting death at a military roadblock, and the alleged extrajudicial execution of a pro-Zelaya demonstrator near the Nicaraguan border.
But the speed with which these cases are resolved will depend on political will at the top. Unfortunately, the political crisis in Honduras has polarized the country, and Attorney General Rubí has taken sides. Following the removal of Zelaya from office, Rubí made clear that his office would arrest the deposed president if he stepped on Honduran soil.
The political positioning of the attorney general has resulted in conflicting actions by different sections of the office. While some units are prosecuting Zelaya supporters for "sedition" and "illicit demonstrations," the human rights unit filed a petition with the Supreme Court that challenges the constitutionality of the decree that makes the gatherings illegal.
Regardless of the outcome of this week's negotiation between Zelaya and the de facto government, Human Rights Watch said, the international community should express strong support for the human rights unit's efforts to investigate alleged abuses by security forces. They should also press the de facto government to instruct security forces to provide full and timely cooperation to human rights unit prosecutors as they investigate.
"Without strong international support, these investigations will probably face so many obstacles that they will go nowhere," said Vivanco. "In addition to applying sanctions, the United States and others should seek ways to support the people and institutions in Honduras that, in the face of tremendous pressure, are trying to protect human rights and defend the rule of law."
Human Rights Watch added that the international community should take a strong stance in favor of accountability for human rights violations committed after the coup, as international standards require that all victims of human rights violations have a right to a remedy.
"One issue that should be off the table during the negotiations between President Zelaya and the de facto government is the question of justice for human rights abuses," said Vivanco.