Friday, September 20, 2013

Indigenous Leader Berta Caceres Ordered Jailed

"I will keep myself with my head held high and will all dignity: I say to them that those businessmen are mistaken if they think that the Lenca people will stop their historic fight in defense of the common property.... My crime is to carry blankets with the name of COPINH, to yell slogans and to create poems in defense of the Río Blanco..."

Honduras' progressive online news source, El Libertador reported these statements, made on Radio Globo by Berta Cáceres, Lenca activist and leader of the Consejo Cívico de Organizaciones Populares e Indígenas de Honduras (Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras: COPINH).

They came in response to a judge in Intibucá, Alicia Lizeth Naigh Reyes, ordering what El Libertador called "prisión preventiva" (preventive detention) for Cáceres. Preventive detention precedes trial.

In fact, as the notice posted by La Prensa late Friday made clear, this was the final sentencing for Cáceres' participation in Lenca mobilization against the Agua Zarca hydroelectric project in Río Blanco, Intibucá, by a Honduran-Chinese collaboration, DESA-SINOHYDRO

The lawyer for the three indigenous activists, Victor Fernández, said that the two other Lenca activists accused, Aureliano Molina and Tomás Membreño, were released under his parole, required to check in every 15 days.

Berta Cáceres was given a more severe sentence, to be served in the Centro Penal of La Esperanza, in the Department of Intibucá.

What Honduran media did not report is the full militarization of the scene, described by the Mexican news site Vanguardia:
The sentence was delivered... surrounded by some 700 police and military, including some inside the place, among them anti-riot police, who carried metal shields, tear gas bombs, and front of the court house, some 2000 Lenca supporting Cáceres with signs were present, while inside were Nora Cortina, one of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo of Argentina; Carlos H Reyes, Honduran labor leader; and Berta Oliva, director of the Comité de Familiares de Detenidos y Desaparecidos (COFADEH).

Not present at the sentencing was Berta Cáceres herself, who was represented by her legal counsel.

Proceso Digital published a story about the protest at the courthouse, claiming the indigenous protestors took over the building, but this detail does not appear in other coverage. They described the charges against the three Lenca leaders as
inciting the population of the western area of the country to cause damage to a business that is developing a hydroelectric project in the area.

It is apparently on these grounds, of inciting others, that Berta Cáceres was deemed a "subversive" and sentenced to jail.

The coverage of the sentencing, and the mass protest outside the courthouse, should call into question news reports that purported to show that the Lenca were in favor of the dam. El Heraldo, for example, headlined its September 7 story Lencas de acuerdo con construcción de represa, and wrote that
More than 100 residents, representing ten Lenca community organizations [patronatos] on the Río Blanco, north of Intibucá and south of Santa Barbará, signed an agreement of cooperation and mutual understanding with President Porfirio Lobo Sosa with the company Desarrollos Energéticos Sociedad Anónima (DESA) [the Honduran partner in this Chinese-Honduran project], accepting the construction of the hydroelectric dam “Agua Zarca”.

The event publicized in these stories notably lacked any participation from COPINH, although representatives from two other Lenca organizations were involved. According to these press reports, the signatories of the agreement stated that they were satisfied with the consultation of their communities-- a legal requirement for the project to proceed-- and in return, the company developing the project promised financial compensation of various kinds.

Of course, what the carefully orchestrated event held in Tegucigalpa did not address were the concerns of the protestors at the site of the Agua Zarca dam. There, in July, protests were met by the wounding of one protestor, and the death of another, through gunshot from army engineering division. In May, the same army unit was busy evicting protestors from the area of the dam.

In June, Radio Progreso posted video and an article in which the protestors specifically stated that the government had not consulted appropriately with the communities affected, as called for:
free, previous, and informed consultation, under ILO Convention 169, ancient land titles, historic rights and agreements signed between the Consejo Cívico de Organizaciones y Pueblos Indígenas de Honduras, COPINH, and the Estado de Honduras.
In this case, as in others, at issue is whether what the government did meets the standard of "free, previous, and informed" consultation.

The government stresses obtaining signatures from representatives of some groups, but does not address the wider question of whether these signatories are representing the actual position of the people.

The signing, taking place while three Lenca leaders were under trial for protesting, and after others had been wounded, killed, or kidnapped, arguably doesn't meet the criterion of being "free".

And getting signatures on documents on September 7, months after construction efforts and protests against them began, clearly does not qualify as "prior" consultation.


John (Juancito) Donaghy said...

Amnesty International put out an Urgent Action on September 12 and an article on September 19:

RAJ said...

Thanks for this-- I encourage readers to follow up on any of the action alerts out there.