Twelve water defenders from the community of Guapinol in northern Honduras are being held in prison for their opposition to a mining project inside the Carlos Escaleras National Park, the source of drinking water for about 42,000 people.
The Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC) explains, "In [August] 2018, when development of the mine began to contaminate the drinking water for 14 nearby communities, residents of Guapinol erected a 'Camp in Defense of Water and Life'."
Around that time, Radio Progreso reported (in Spanish) that the mining company has caused severe damage to the Guapinol River, the main source of water in the area.
The camp was in place for 90 days. The UUSC notes, "In October 2018, 1,500 Honduran military and police officers violently attacked and evicted the camp."
The activists were subsequently charged with "usurpation of land".
Aware of this charge against them, they voluntarily presented themselves to the Court of National Jurisdiction in the city of La Ceiba in February of this year.
The UUSC notes, "Their charges were suddenly elevated to arson, aggravated robbery, and unlawful association with criminal intent."
School of the Americas Watch (SOAW) adds, "On February 23, 12 Honduran activists who have been defending the drinking water of numerous communities from a mine owned by members of Honduras' powerful oligarchy were jailed in an extreme misuse of the justice system."
Their first court hearing was on February 28 in the capital city of Tegucigalpa, 400 kilometres south of La Ceiba.
The Mesoamerican Initiative of Women Human Rights Defenders (IM-Defensoras) highlights that the activists are being tried in "a court with national jurisdiction" and that "the only cases tried there are those involving drug trafficking and organized crime".
On the afternoon of March 1, Alex Goodman posted on Facebook, "Representing the National Lawyers' Guild as a legal observer in hearings for the Guapinol water protectors… Hearings are precedent setting because they could face organized crime charges & 30 years in prison."
Late on March 1, the UUSC tweeted, "In 2 days of hearings literally no evidence has been brought against them, and all of the charges are too general to defend against."
Then on March 2, Honduran lawyer Omar Menjivar Rosales tweeted (in Spanish), "A definitive dismissal has just been issued in favor of the defenders of the Guapinol River, for the crimes of usurpation and damages."
While that is welcome news, the Honduran newspaper Critero also reported (in Spanish) that a second hearing began on March 2 on the more serious charges related to unjust deprivation freedom, theft, aggravated fire and association illicit and that the defenders remain in judicial detention.
That same day, journalist Heather Gies tweeted, "On anniversary of Berta Cáceres murder, 12 Honduran water activists await a ruling on whether they'll be sent to trial (+ pre-trial detention) for 4 serious crimes after resisting mining in Guapinol."
SOAW notes there are more water defenders at risk. It highlights, "The US-backed Honduran Public Prosecutor's Office is pursuing charges against at least 32 defenders of the Guapinol River; many are facing serious charges that could result in decades in prison."
Toronto-based Humber College academic Tyler Shipley has drawn the links between the criminalization and attacks against defenders and the 2009 coup in Honduras. "The coup was supported primarily by the U.S. and Canada, which have significant geopolitical and business interests in Honduras that were threatened by the social movement (and, by extension, the Zelaya government)," Shipley has written.
He adds, "Canada's support for the military coup has made things worse for so many Hondurans. Remember, prior to the coup, Hondurans were mobilizing to fight back against the oligarchs and neoliberalism. [...] The coup provided an opportunity for the state to crack down hard against those mobilizations. The list of people detained, harassed, assaulted, tortured, kidnapped, even killed, is long and growing."
Comments by SOAW and Shipley about the oligarchy further links to the UUSC commentary which notes, "The company behind the mining project, Inversiones Los Pinares, is also the largest landowner in Honduras; with close ties to the Honduran ruling party, they have previously been linked to attempts to kidnap and intimidate activists as well as bribe officials."
The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders Michel Forst has tweeted (in Spanish), "I have received information about the situation of criminalized defenders of # Guapinol. I am concerned, it is essential to ensure that due process is followed."
And IM-Defensoras has called for the immediate release of water defender Lourdes Gómez and the eleven men being held as well as an end to the criminalization and persecution of these activists.
Last month, Peace Brigades International-Honduras Project accompanied members of the Guapinol community to a government office where they filed a complaint about the lack of transparency around the mining concession granted to Inversiones Los Pinares.
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