Guatemala: the ICJ condemns the persecution of human rights defenders in the Department of Izabal

by | Jul 24, 2018 | News

For many years, human rights defenders in Izabal have been the victims of persecution because of their opposition to the Phoenix nickel mining project.

This project has been operated by the Guatemalan Nickel Company (CGN), formally owned by Hudbay and now owned by the Solway Group.

“The ICJ expresses its deep concern about the persecution of human rights defenders opposing to nickel mining operations that are causing serious environmental damage and irreparable harm to the Lake of Izabal.

The local communities’ peaceful resistance contrasts with the violent repression that they face,” Ramon Cadena, Director of the Central American Office of the ICJ, said today.

Ramon Cadena added: “the Guatemalan government must urgently put an end to the criminalization and persecution of community leaders, journalists and all human rights defenders in the Department of Izabal.

Internal disciplinary measures should be taken against judges who through their acts contribute to the persecution of persons exercising their legitimate rights and freedoms.

The State should provide reparations for the harm and prejudice caused to human rights defenders by the public authorities. Furthermore, the International Commission against Corruption and Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) should fully investigate these acts.“

Eduardo Bin Poou, Vice-President of the Izabal Fishers’ Association was recently detained and falsely accused without any evidence that he had committed any crime.

Last year, on 27 May 2017, Carlos Maas Coc, a leader of the Fishers’ Association was assassinated, and another fisherman, Alfredo Maquín Cocul, was wounded and these crimes remain in impunity today.

From 18-20 July, 2018, the ICJ carried out a visit to the Department of Izabal. On 19 July, the ICJ observed the hearing when the case against Jerson Xitumul, a community journalist, was dismissed for lack of evidence of any wrongdoing, at the Court for Criminal, Narcotics and Environmental Offences in Puerto Barrios.

The ICJ then held a meeting with the Izabal Fishers’ Association and on 20 July, the ICJ interviewed the Vice President of the same Association, Eduardo Bin Poou, arbitrarily detained in the Puerto Barrios prison.

The ICJ is deeply concerned by the role that judges in the Department of Izabal have played in the criminalization of human rights defenders.

Judge Edgar Aníbal Arteaga López has often abused his office by imposing exemplary punishments against human rights defenders.

This judge has handed down arbitrary sentences against journalists, fishermen, community leaders, land rights’ defenders and all those opposed to the nickel operations or who defend community rights in the Department.

For example, because of the arbitrary actions of Judge Arteaga, the community leader, Abelardo Chub Caal, remains in detention although there is no evidence that he has committed any crime.

There are other cases including that of Maria Magdalena Cuc Choc, from the Chabilchoch community, who was detained on 17 January 2018 in Puerto Barrios.

The single Judge for Criminal Proceedings, Narcotics and Environmental Offences in Puerto Barrios, Ana Leticia Peña Ayala, despite the evidence, absolved the retired Colonel Mynor Ronaldo Padilla González (former chief of security for the CGN nickel company) of all charges and ordered his immediate liberty.

During the court case, the Judge Peña Ayala prohibited the public and journalists from entering the court room for so-called “security reasons”, so that most of the proceedings were carried out behind closed doors. With this ruling, the assassination of Adolfo Ich remains in impunity and those responsible have not been punished.

In this same case, Germán Chub was left quadriplegic and the circumstances of the attack against him have never been resolved.

In the hearing on 19 July in the case of Jerson Xitumul, without any justification, Judge Arteaga also prohibited the presence of journalists and international and national observers in the court room.

Both judges flagrantly violated the principle of public hearings established in the Guatemalan Penal Code. A formal complaint was submitted to the Auxiliary of the Human Rights Attorney of the Department of Izabal concerning the actions of Judge Arteaga on 19 July.

The ICJ has stated on a number of occasions that the Guatemalan authorities have persecuted human rights defenders by charging them with crimes of land appropriation or aggravated land appropriation.

In this way, the Guatemalan authorities seek to criminalize the legitimate right to resist, enshrined in article 45 of the Guatemalan Constitution, accusing environmental human rights defenders and others of crimes such as incitement to crime, illegal detention, threats, damages, illicit meetings and marches and other acts. In practice, the State is penalizing the legitimate exercise of the rights of expression and association.

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