Honduran authorities have jailed indigenous leader Bertha Cáceres, Director of the Council of Indigenous and Popular Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), while she awaits trial on charges connected to a protest against the Agua Zarca hydroelectic dam.
Cáceres has been leading a protest against the dam for several months, asserting that the sale of the property to Desarrollos Energeticos, SA (DESA) was illegal and is part of a pattern of not consulting Indigenous Peoples before selling their land.
On Friday, September 20, the Public Ministry of Honduras charged Cáceres and two colleagues with usurpation, coercion and damages involving the roadblock that has prevented passage to the Agua Zarca project for more than 170 days. (Caceres had been charges with illegal possession of a firearm on May 24, the day after police had removed protestors from the site by force and tear gas.)
Cáceres, along with COPINH leaders Tomas Gomez and Aureliano Molina have been charged with instigating the action and intellectual authorship of the road block which was ordered removed on September 20 also.
Amnesty International (AI), as well as several international and regional human rights agencies in the Americas, is protesting the arrests of all three leaders.
“Defending human rights in Honduras has become a life-threatening activity with Indigenous leaders protecting their peoples’ rights, being particularly vulnerable to attack,” said Nancy Tapias Torrado, Researcher on Human Rights Defenders in the Americas at AI.
“It is clear that Bertha Cáceres is being harassed in order to stop her from defending the rights of the Lenca Indigenous Peoples,” said Tapias Torrado.
Other activists pointed to the Honduran government’s role in the repression; the government had signed contracts with DESA and the Chinese multinational SYNODRO.
“Each time it becomes clearer that whoever opposes a government plan can end up incarcerated,” said Marcia Aguiluz, Director of the Center for Justice and International Law’s Mexico and Central America Division.
“The prosecution and imprisonment of human rights defenders and lawyers on charges of “instigation” is a chilling precedent intended to leave a population already suffering from chronic violation of their right to access to justice even more vulnerable,” said Annie Bird, Co-Director of Rights Action (RA).
“Even more disturbing, the criminalization of human rights defenders began around the time that the Honduran press reported that the U.S. Ambassador to Honduras called on the Government of Honduras to prosecute those who ‘promote land invasions,’” Bird noted.
Bird also pointed out that the Rio Blanco community, where the dam will be located, has filed charges against DESA and Honduran officials accusing the corporation of land usurpation and the officials of abuse of authority.
The community filed the charges with the public prosecutor but among those people who are included in the suit is the Assistant Attorney General of Honduras.