Tegucigalpa, Honduras, August 21, 2009 — The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) today concluded its on-site visit to Honduras, which began on August 17, 2009. The purpose of the visit was to observe the human rights situation in the context of the coup d’état of June 28, 2009. The delegation was composed of the IACHR President, Luz Patricia Mejía; the First Vice President, Víctor Abramovich; the Second Vice President and Rapporteur for Honduras, Felipe González; Commissioner Paolo Carozza; and Executive Secretary Santiago A. Canton. The Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Catalina Botero, was also part of the delegation.
The IACHR requested the visit on June 30, 2009, received consent from the State on July 13, 2009, and came to an agreement with the President of the Supreme Court of Justice to conduct the visit. The preliminary observations presented today are based on information received before and during the visit. The Commission will prepare a final report that it will publish in the near future.
During the visit, the IACHR met with representatives of the de facto government and representatives of various sectors of civil society, and received more than one hundred individuals who presented complaints, testimony, and information. In Tegucigalpa, the delegation met with authorities of the three branches of government, human rights defenders, political and social leaders, nongovernmental organizations, and parents of families. On August 19, Commission delegations traveled to Tocoa, in the department of Colón, and to San Pedro Sula, in the department of Cortés, where they held meetings with representatives of civil society and local authorities. In Tocoa, the IACHR received more than 40 teachers, journalists, political leaders, and social leaders, and met with representatives of the police, the Army, and the Public Prosecutor’s Office, as well as with local business owners and students. In San Pedro Sula, the Commission received more than 50 representatives of civil society organizations, met with members of the media, heard testimony from individuals injured during the suppression of demonstrations, and met with authorities from the municipality, the police, and the armed forces. On August 20, Commission delegations traveled to the towns of El Paraíso and Comayagua. In El Paraíso, meetings were held with civil society organizations and the mayor’s office, and testimony was received regarding the events of July 24-27, 2009, when a continual curfew was imposed for three days. In Comayagua, the IACHR received information about the events of July 30, 2009, when a demonstration was suppressed and nearly 150 people were detained for a period of 6 to 14 hours. The IACHR obtained this information by taking testimony from those affected and from witnesses, as well as from local police and Army authorities and the regional Office of the Public Prosecutor. The Commission thanks everyone who facilitated the organization of this visit.
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On June 28, 2009, the IACHR condemned the coup d’état and the interruption of the constitutional order, and made an urgent call to restore the democratic order and to respect human rights, the rule of law, and the Inter-American Democratic Charter. In addition, all the States of the hemisphere unanimously and immediately condemned the coup d’etat. The Permanent Council of the Organization of American States (OAS) condemned the coup d’état, demanded the return of President Manuel Zelaya, and declared that no government that emerged from the institutional interruption would be recognized. On June 30, the OAS General Assembly gave the de facto government of Honduras a 72-hour deadline in which to restore President Zelaya to power, and on July 4, 2009, it suspended the State of Honduras from the exercise of its right to participate in the OAS.
The Supreme Court of Justice, the National Congress, and other Honduran actors have a different reading than that of the international community as a whole as to the legitimacy of the coup d’état, as they believe that the acts of June 28, 2009, were carried out with strict adherence to the Constitution. The Commission considers that even when there may be differences of opinion on this matter, the obligation to guarantee the rights of persons does not change, since this is incumbent at all times on all those who hold public power, regardless of any interpretation that may be made of the events of June 28, 2009.
The OAS General Assembly’s decision does not suspend the obligations Honduras acquired when it ratified the American Convention on Human Rights in 1977 and other inter-American human rights instruments, based on which the IACHR continues to observe the state of human rights in the country. In addition, in its July 4 resolution the OAS General Assembly specifically reaffirmed “that the Republic of Honduras must continue to fulfill its obligations as a member of the Organization, in particular with regard to human rights.” Moreover, Article 21 of the Inter-American Democratic Charter establishes that, in the case of a suspension from participation in the OAS, “The suspended member state shall continue to fulfill its obligations to the Organization, in particular its human rights obligations.”
Since June 28, 2009, the Commission has received numerous complaints about human rights violations in the context of the coup d’état. In all these cases, the Commission proceeded immediately to communicate with the State, based on the American Convention and the Commission’s Rules of Procedure. On June 28, the IACHR granted precautionary measures that were subsequently expanded on June 29; July 2, 3, 10, 15, 24, and 30; and August 7 and 17, 2009. These measures were intended to safeguard the life and physical integrity of a total of 106 individuals about whom the IACHR had received information indicating a situation in which there was an imminent risk of irreparable harm. The IACHR also requested information on four occasions, under Article XIV of the Inter-American Convention on the Forced Disappearance of Persons, with regard to the situation of five persons whose whereabouts had not been able to be established. Finally, the Commission also made various requests for information under Article 41 of the American Convention on Human Rights regarding such situations as the application of the decree to suspend guarantees, the use of the curfew, repression of public demonstrations, detentions of thousands of demonstrators, attacks against the communications media, harassment of journalists, and temporary shutdowns of media outlets by the Army.
The Commission’s communications were directed to the Office of the President of the Congress and the Office of the President of the Supreme Court of Justice, given the impossibility of addressing the constitutional President of Honduras, Manuel Zelaya, and the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Patricia Rodas. The Supreme Court of Justice provided information on the status of remedies of amparo, habeas corpus, and motions of unconstitutionality being processed, and asked the various jurisdictional bodies, security agencies, and the National Commission on Human Rights to provide information as to whether there was any pending complaint or request for a precautionary measure in favor of the beneficiaries.
With regard to the requests for information, based on Article XIV of the Inter-American Convention on the Forced Disappearance of Persons, the IACHR received information from the Supreme Court of Justice, from other State entities, and from civil society. Based on the information provided by the authorities, the Commission believes that the situation of three of the individuals has been cleared up, but the whereabouts of two persons have not yet been clarified. One of these individuals was seen for the last time at a demonstration held on July 12, 2009, and the other was allegedly kidnapped from her home on July 26, 2009.
Democratic Institutional System
Representative democracy is the form of political organization adopted explicitly by the OAS Member States. The OAS Charter establishes in its principles that “the solidarity of the American States and the high aims which are sought through it require the political organization of those States on the basis of the effective exercise of representative democracy.” Along these lines, the OAS Charter states that “representative democracy is an indispensable condition for the stability, peace and development of the region” and proclaims that one of the essential purposes of the Organization is to “promote and consolidate representative democracy, with due respect for the principle of nonintervention.” The process of creating mechanisms to strengthen democracy throughout the region was consolidated in September 2001 with the adoption of the Inter-American Democratic Charter, which establishes: “The peoples of the Americas have a right to democracy and their governments have an obligation to promote and defend it.”
The Member States have expressed themselves explicitly on the close link between democracy and the observance of human rights. The Inter-American Democratic Charter reaffirms that “the promotion and protection of human rights is a basic prerequisite for the existence of a democratic society.” It states: “Essential elements of representative democracy include, inter alia, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, access to and the exercise of power in accordance with the rule of law, the holding of periodic, free, and fair elections based on secret balloting and universal suffrage as an expression of the sovereignty of the people, the pluralistic system of political parties and organizations, and the separation of powers and independence of the branches of government.”
The Inter-American Commission and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights have on many occasions made statements affirming that close link. In its Advisory Opinion 8, the Inter-American Court stated: “In a democratic society, the rights and freedoms inherent in the human person, the guarantees applicable to them and the rule of law form a triad. Each component thereof defines itself, complements and depends on the others for its meaning.” For its part, the Commission has indicated that the democratic system and the observance of the rule of law are critical for the effective protection of human rights and that, at the same time, the complete guarantee of human rights is not possible without the effective and unrestricted recognition of political rights.
Considering the interrelationship between democracy, the rule of law, and the observance of human rights, the IACHR considers that the coup d’état carried out through the removal of the constitutional President has an immediate impact on the observance of the rule of law and of human rights in Honduras. The Commission was able to verify during its visit that the interruption of the constitutional order brought about by the coup d’état has been accompanied by a strong military presence in various spheres of civilian life; the suspension of guarantees through the implementation of a curfew that does not meet the standards of the inter-American system; and the ineffectiveness of judicial remedies to safeguard people’s fundamental rights.
Along these lines, the Commission received information about the strong military presence in schools and at the National University, and the Army’s shutdown and occupation of television and radio channels during the coup d’état.
It is also of concern to the Commission that the Army has actively participated, along with the National Police, in controlling demonstrations. While under exceptional circumstances the armed forces may be called on to participate in controlling demonstrations, this exercise must be limited to the maximum extent, because the armed forces lack the necessary training to control internal disturbances. According to information received from the Ministry of Defense, the Ministry of the Interior, and the military high command, the military forces participate under the command of the police forces, under a constitutional provision that allows such an arrangement. However, as the Inter-American Commission and Court have indicated, the use of force on the part of State security forces must be of an exceptional nature, and must be planned and limited proportionally by the authorities. It is also worth noting that the bodies of the inter-American human rights system have established previously that the States must limit to the maximum extent the use of the armed forces to control internal disturbances, since the training they receive is designed to destroy the enemy and not to protect and control civilians, which is the type of training police agencies typically receive.
The suspension of guarantees is provided for in Article 27 of the Convention as an exceptional mechanism for suspending the enjoyment and exercise of rights “in time of war, public danger, or other emergency that threatens the independence or security of a State Party.” However, for a suspension of guarantees to be legitimate, it must meet a series of requirements established in the Convention. The first of these requirements is that the suspension of guarantees be adopted by a government that exercises public power legitimately, within the context of a democratic society. Also, as the Inter-American Court has stated, “The suspension of guarantees lacks all legitimacy whenever it is resorted to for the purpose of undermining the democratic system. That system establishes limits that may not be transgressed, thus ensuring that certain fundamental human rights remain permanently protected.”
On June 28, Mr. Micheletti announced the beginning of the curfew during a press conference held at the National Congress, with no information as to the legal instruments on which this action was based. The timeframe established for the curfew was from 9 p.m. until 6 a.m. for the two days following the takeover of power.
One of the grounds the de facto government invoked to restrict the rights of the people of Honduras was Decree No. 011-2009, which established a curfew beginning on June 30, 2009. Consequently, before any particular analysis on the State of Honduras’s compliance with human rights obligations, the Commission believes it is necessary to analyze the compatibility of the curfew decree with the American Convention on Human Rights, in particular Article 27.
Decree 011-2009 established the curfew for a period of 72 hours, applicable between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. Although this period expired on July 3, 2009, the curfew continued to be implemented for more than a month without any type of legal foundation. Thus, contrary to what is established in the Constitution, the state of exception was established by decree of the de facto government, for a shorter period of time than was implemented in practice, and without being published in the Official Gazette. The subsequent ratification by Congress and publication on July 27, 2009, does not right these original wrongs.
In accordance with Article 27 of the American Convention, the scope of the suspensions must be strictly necessary to relieve an emergency situation, and this implies limiting the scope of time and space, and the rights that are suspended. The Commission deems that, in the context of the coup d’état, curfews have been implemented since June 28, 2009, without justification as to their reasonableness or relevance to the situation that led to the state of exception. In particular, reference must be made to the events of July 5, 2009, when President Zelaya tried unsuccessfully to return to the country by air. The curfew established originally was in effect from 10 p.m. until 5 a.m. However, at 6 p.m. it was announced on national television that the curfew would begin in half an hour and would last until 5 a.m. In addition, the discretionary way in which the curfews have been established is reflected in the lifting of the measure on July 12, 2009, and its resumption on July 15, 2009, with no justification of the causes that would warrant a new suspension of rights.
Even within a legitimate state of exception, each act of implementation must be reasonable, that is, it must be strictly appropriate for the occasion and the scope of the state of exception, without any type of discrimination. The IACHR has verified that during the implementation of the curfew, thousands of people were trapped between military roadblocks without justification. In addition, the curfew was not uniformly applied throughout the country, and in fact there was discriminatory enforcement of the restriction of the right to circulate. Thus, for example, the IACHR was able to confirm that in the town of El Paraíso some people were allowed, in a selective and discriminatory manner, to move about during the curfew.
This situation is aggravated by the absence of judicial control of the rules governing the state of exception. For five decades, the Commission has consistently underscored the foundational importance that, in a democratic society, there be judicial control of the acts of public power. During its on-site visit, the Commission received testimony consistent with a great deal of information it had received since June 28, 2009, indicating that the judicial remedies available in Honduras do not currently offer efficient and effective protection against human rights violations in the context of the coup d’état. The de facto government’s initial acts include a suspension of guarantees that has not been subject to judicial scrutiny, despite having been called into question by various motions of amparo. Under the current circumstances, the Commission deems that these actions should have received the highest priority.
The Commission has received similar information from all sectors to the effect that the majority of the habeas corpus actions presented to challenge detentions are rendered moot because the alleged victims have already been released. The Commission would like to stress the importance of resolving habeas corpus actions with utmost promptness in all cases. The Commission saw firsthand, for example, a place of detention consisting of three small cells in which between 80 and 100 people had been held for several hours. While the law allows for detentions within a 24-hour period, the Commission deems that the situation created by the detention of several dozen people should receive immediate attention. Moreover, the Commission has received testimony and information regarding the fact that some judges responsible for writs of habeas corpus have been mistreated, threatened, and intimidated so that they will not carry out their duties.
On another matter, the Commission has received consistent and repeated information confirming that, in many cases, the offices of public prosecutors have not begun official investigations into the existence of groups of people who have been injured and in custody. In the case mentioned in the previous paragraph, a number of those detained were injured and had previously been treated in hospitals, but the public prosecutor who visited them did not draw up a list. When asked to explain the situation, the Public Ministry indicated that the reason for this omission may have been that people do not trust the institution. The Commission deems that it is critically important for the Public Ministry to carry out its role regardless of the opinion or political affiliation of those who receive its services.
The deterioration of institutions without a doubt affects the regular functioning of Honduran society. One example is the information received by the IACHR indicating how children’s right to education has been affected. The Commission understands that these arguments arise in a context in which teachers, parents, and even those being educated hold conflicting opinions in an intense social debate. The genesis of the matter, the Commission believes, is that doors for democratic dialogue have been shut, which hinders a resolution of this conflict. The Commission will evaluate all the complaints it has received and will report on its conclusions in the near future.
Violations of Human Rights
Along with the loss of institutional legitimacy brought about by the coup d’état, which affects the regular functioning of democratic institutions, during its visit the Commission confirmed a pattern of disproportionate use of public force, arbitrary detentions, and the control of information aimed at limiting political participation by a sector of the citizenry. The Commission confirmed the use of repression against demonstrations through the placement of military roadblocks; the arbitrary enforcement of curfews; the detentions of thousands of people; cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment; and poor detention conditions. The control of information has been implemented through the temporary shutdown of some media outlets; a ban on the transmission of signals of certain cable television stations that were reporting on the coup d’état; the selective use of power outages to affect the transmission by audiovisual media reporting on the coup; and attacks and threats against journalists from media outlets with editorial positions opposed to the coup d’état.
In addition, the IACHR received testimony indicating that acts of harassment have been perpetrated against individuals who have publicly demonstrated political affinity with President Zelaya. Governors, deputies, mayors, and social leaders who had allegedly demanded the restitution of the constitutional president have reported that they were subject to reprisals, threats, acts of violence, budget cuts, and military occupation of the public installations in which they worked, among other measures. President Zelaya’s family, in particular, informed the Commission about the harassment and smear campaign that have affected all of their members.
Excessive Use of Force in Public Demonstrations
Political and social participation through public demonstrations is essential to democratic life in societies and is of vital social interest. People from all political sectors have the right to fully and freely exercise their right to freedom of expression and their right to assembly, without violence and in accordance with the law and inter-American standards for the protection of human rights. As the Inter-American Commission and Court have indicated, the State not only should refrain from interfering with the exercise of these rights, but it should also adopt measures to ensure that these rights can be exercised effectively.
As the Commission has stated on previous occasions, the State has the authority to impose reasonable limitations on demonstrations so as to ensure that they are peaceful or in order to contain those who demonstrate violently. However, in exercising this authority, the conduct of its agents must be limited to employing the safest and least harmful measures, since the grounds for breaking up a demonstration should be the duty to protect people. At the same time, the legitimate use of public force in such situations presupposes—necessarily—that the force is proportionate to the legitimate end being sought, reducing to a minimum the possibility of causing personal injuries and the loss of human lives.
With regard in particular to the use of firearms, the Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials states: “Law enforcement officials, in carrying out their duty, shall, as far as possible, apply non-violent means before resorting to the use of force and firearms.” Likewise, the United Nations Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials states expressly: “The use of firearms is considered an extreme measure.” Under Article 9 of the Basic Principles, meanwhile, firearms shall not be used against persons except when there is an imminent threat of death.
The Commission was informed during its visit that the demonstrations have been peaceful, with the exception of some cases in which there have been acts of violence, some of them serious, against persons and against property. These include the burning of a restaurant and of a bus, and attacks against a congressional deputy and several journalists.
The Commission learned that in demonstrations that were suppressed throughout the country—including Tegucigalpa, San Pedro Sula, Choloma, Comayagua, and the town of El Paraíso—there was a pattern of excessive use of public force. In fact, several of the demonstrations held since June 28, 2009, were broken up by public security forces, both police and military, resulting in deaths, cases of torture and mistreatment, hundreds of injured, and thousands of arbitrary detentions.
Right to Life
The American Convention on Human Rights establishes in its Article 4 that every person has the right to have his life respected and that no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his life. In the domestic arena, Article 65 of the Constitution of Honduras establishes that “the right to life is inviolable.”
Isis Obed Murillo Mencías, who was 19 years of age, died on July 5, 2009, as a result of a bullet wound to the head, which he sustained while participating in a demonstration outside Tegucigalpa’s Toncontin Airport. The repression was carried out by the National Police and the Army. During its visit, the Commission received concurring testimony from several people about this event. In terms of the investigation, the IACHR was informed by the Secretary of Defense of the de facto government, Adolfo Lionel Sevilla, that there was an Army report on the death of the young Isis Obed. However, the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Romeo Vásquez Velásquez, indicated that the investigation was still underway. In addition, the Commission was informed by official sources that the report prepared by the armed forces on the military operation at the airport recognizes that members of the public forces fired arms against a group of demonstrators. The Commission was also informed about the existence of forensic reports indicating that the projectiles that caused the death are compatible with the weapons used by the public forces. The Office of the Special Human Rights Prosecutor informed the Commission that it had opened an official investigation to determine the circumstances and responsibility for this death.
The body of Pedro Magdiel Muñoz was found on July 25, 2009, in the department of El Paraíso, near the border with Nicaragua. His body bore signs of torture that had been hidden under a clean shirt that had been put on him after he was killed. The IACHR received testimony from two persons who witnessed his detention by members of the Army hours before his body was to appear. The witnesses informed the Commission that the victim had actively participated that day in demonstrations in front of military roadblocks set up in the area.
On July 30, 2009, Roger Vallejos Soriano, a teacher, received a bullet to the head during demonstrations held in Comayagüela, and he died on August 1. The State informed the Commission that an investigation is underway.
On August 2, 2009, Pedro Pablo Hernández died from a bullet wound to his head. According to testimony presented to the Commission, the gunshot came from a member of the military who was at the military roadblock located at the intersection of the Jutiapa detour, in the Jamastran valley, on the road from Danlí to Trojes. The Office of the Public Prosecutor reported that the case is being investigated.
Right to Humane Treatment
Article 5 of the American Convention on Human Rights recognizes every person’s right “to have his physical, mental, and moral integrity respected.” It also expressly states: “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman, or degrading punishment or treatment.” For its part, the Constitution of Honduras establishes the following in its Article 68: “Every person has the right to have his physical, mental and moral integrity respected.” The right to humane treatment, like the right to life, cannot be set aside under any circumstance.
The IACHR received testimony from more than 100 people verifying that the repression of public demonstrations was characterized by a disproportionate use of force. In fact, in the various departments to which it traveled, the Commission received testimony about individuals wounded by lead bullets or injured by blows with police truncheons and other blunt objects made of rubber, iron, and wood, and about the indiscriminate use of tear gas, as customary methods used to deter demonstrations. The Commission received testimony from dozens of people with serious injuries to the head as a result of the repression exercised both by police and military personnel. The IACHR verified that men, women, and elderly people showed bruises on various parts of their body, and it heard various accounts of people who were subject to humiliation and torture. In San Pedro Sula, in particular, the Commission was told that during the acts of repression, police officers raped a woman, and several persons received blows to the abdomen and the genitals, and pepper gas was sprayed in their eyes.
The Commission received testimony about the August 14 repression on the Choloma bridge in San Pedro Sula. According to the information received, the police threw tear gas canisters and began to beat and detain demonstrators. The IACHR heard the testimony of two female demonstrators who indicated that members of a strike force, the Cobra Command, chased them for several blocks then struck them on the legs and buttocks with police truncheons while insulting them. Another woman told the Commission that police officers stripped her naked from the torso down, hitting her brutally with their truncheons. The Commission also received the testimony of a worker who was beaten at that same demonstration and who suffered a fracture of the nasal septum and cuts to his forehead and head.
One person affected testified to the Commission that he had been traveling in the region near Las Manos, near the border with Nicaragua, at the end of July. Military elements stopped the bus in which he was traveling to the border city of Las Manos, in the department of El Paraíso, and they forced it to turn back, after subjecting passengers to humiliations and insults. When the bus turned back, the military men fired, and a bullet hit the man in the ear, blowing off a piece of it. At first, the hospital did not want to treat him, saying that he was a terrorist.
Information was also received about police brutality at a march toward the National Congress in Tegucigalpa, held on August 12. According to the testimony, when they arrived at the destination of the march, members of the Army, the National Police, and the elite Cobra Command repressed demonstrators by beating them as well as bystanders who were not participating in the protest. The Commission heard testimony from a man who was sitting on a bench when he saw a demonstrator receive a brutal beating. He recounted the following: “A teenager was running down the avenue, and the military men grabbed him and hit him with an iron stick. I told them, ‘You’re going to kill the boy,’ and then one of the military men said, ‘Grab that old man,” and they started to beat me.”
Two brothers who had left the August 12 demonstration in Tegucigalpa told how military men forced them off the bus with blows of the fist then took them to the Congress, where the brothers, along with others who had been detained, were forced to take off their shirts and shoes. According to the testimony of one of the brothers, “They were hitting me in the face and pressing my testicles with their police clubs. They made me fall to the floor, which was very hot. The police stood on my toes and smashed them over and over. I lifted my head because the [concrete] was burning me, and they clubbed me twice.”
Several individuals became victims of persecution by the Comayagua security forces after participating in demonstrations. One of the victims said that after the demonstration in which she had participated had already been dispersed by the members of the security forces, police entered the house in which she had taken refuge, apprehended her, made her get in a military truck where there were other people who had been detained, and then threw tear gas inside the vehicle. The Inter-American Commission heard similar testimony from various individuals regarding this incident. Information was also received about the use of tear gas canisters thrown inside family homes in which demonstrators had allegedly taken refuge.
Right to Personal Liberty
Article 7 of the American Convention on Human Rights states that “every person has the right to personal liberty and security” and “no one shall be deprived of his physical liberty except for the reasons and under the conditions established beforehand by the constitution of the State Party concerned or by a law established pursuant thereto.” It also states that “no one shall be subject to arbitrary arrest or imprisonment” and that “anyone who is detained shall be informed of the reasons for his detention and shall be promptly notified of the charge or charges against him.” For its part, Article 69 of the Constitution of Honduras indicates: “Personal liberty is inviolable and may be restricted or suspended temporarily only in accordance with the law.”
Another method used by the de facto government to silence and obstruct expressions of protest has been the use of detentions of demonstrators and even of individuals who were in the immediate vicinity of demonstrations without participating in them. According to the information received, between 3,500 and 4,000 people were arbitrarily detained by the police and the Army during the demonstrations. The Commission confirmed with various sources that in many cases, no record was made of their detentions, or records were inconsistent; nor were judicial authorities or public prosecutors informed. No charges have been brought against these individuals, who were released hours after their detention. According to what was reported to the Commission, the arbitrary detentions allegedly lasted for periods ranging from 45 minutes to 24 hours. According to these reports, those who were detained were subject to blows, threats at gunpoint, and verbal attacks. It was also reported that some of the cells to which they were taken were covered with urine and feces. The Commission received information that at some police posts the judges responsible who appeared in response to petitions for habeas corpus were mistreated, threatened at gunpoint, and verbally abused.
For example, on August 12, 28 persons were arrested (27 adults and one minor) during the march toward the National Congress. Three of them were charged with terrorism and given conditional release. The other 24 were charged with crimes of sedition, damage to private property, illegal demonstration, and theft. Those detained were taken to installations of the Cobra Battalion, which is not equipped as a detention center but is a training camp for specialized forces. At the Cobra Battalion, those detained were confined to the stands of a sports stadium. Once 24 hours had passed—the period in which, under constitutional guidelines, they had to be released—the Office of the Public Prosecutor filed indictments against them. The afternoon of the following day, at a police installation, a hearing was held on the indictments. It wasn’t until that moment that those who had been detained learned of the charges against them, which were the grounds for their detention. During the hearing, police forces and members of the Cobra Command were inside the room. All those detained were released on different dates between August 14 and 20; 18 have been exonerated and the other 6 continue to face prosecution on the illegal demonstration charges.
From July 24 to 27, between 4,000 and 5,000 people were trapped between military roadblocks in the border area with Nicaragua, in the department of El Paraíso, during the enforcement in that area of a continual curfew by virtue of consecutive extensions every 12 hours. The Commission received concurring testimony from numerous witnesses indicating that during this period they did not have access to water, food, or medicine; that they were repressed by security forces through the use of tear gas; and that those who were injured did not receive medical attention.
The Commission considers it imperative that the de facto government adopt urgent measures to guarantee the right to life, humane treatment, and personal liberty of all persons. It is essential that serious, exhaustive, conclusive, and impartial investigations be done of all cases involving human rights violations. The Commission underscores the need for those who are responsible to be duly tried and punished, and for adequate reparations to be made to the family members and victims of violations that are attributable to agents of the State. To this effect, it is critical that the Office of the Human Rights Prosecutor continue and expand the task it must carry out to investigate the totality of violations that have occurred in the context of the coup, and that no obstacles are placed in the way.
During its visit, the Commission received testimony stating that in the context of the demonstrations and the repression and detentions carried out by police officers and members of the military, women were especially subject to acts of violence and humiliation because of their gender. The Commission confirmed that, while they were under the direct control of members of the police and Army, many women were subject to abusive and denigrating treatment that included having their breasts and vagina groped. In other cases, the Commission received information that some of the women had had their legs spread open and their genitals touched with police truncheons.
Right to Freedom of Expression
The guarantee and protection of freedom of expression is an essential condition for the defense of all human rights and for the very existence of any democratic society. The American Convention on Human Rights establishes the right to freedom of expression in its Article 13, which states that “everyone has the right to freedom of thought and expression” and indicates that this includes “freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing, in print, in the form of art, or through any other medium of one’s choice.” Meanwhile, Article 72 of the Constitution of Honduras recognizes the freedom to express thoughts “by any means of dissemination, without prior censorship.”
The Inter-American Court has consistently stressed the importance of this right, holding that:
Freedom of expression is a cornerstone upon which the very existence of a democratic society rests. It is indispensable for the formation of public opinion. It is also a condition sine qua non for the development of political parties, trade unions, scientific and cultural societies and, in general, those who wish to influence the public. It represents, in short, the means that enable the community, when exercising its options, to be sufficiently informed. Consequently, it can be said that a society that is not well informed is not a society that is truly free.
The IACHR has received information about situations that have arisen since the coup d’état that constitute serious violations of the right to freedom of expression. During the visit, it was confirmed that on June 28, 2009, various media outlets—in particular, television channels and radio stations—were forced, by military occupations of their facilities, to suspend their broadcasts. In some cases, they were subject to technical restrictions such as power outages and takeovers of broadcast repeaters and transmitters, which made it impossible for them to report on what was happening. It was also verified that several cable channels were taken off the air and that TV programs that took a critical view of the coup were suspended. Other mechanisms for controlling information have included calls from various public officials, especially members of the public forces, about the inadvisability of transmitting information or opinions against the de facto government. There have also been detentions, attacks, and the destruction of equipment that reporters use to do their jobs, as well as violent attacks and death threats by private individuals against the media.
The IACHR has been able to note that following the coup d’état, the communications media in Honduras have become polarized. The publicly owned media, due to their inadequate institutional design, are not independent from the executive branch; as a result, they are openly biased in favor of the de facto government. Journalists and media outlets that are perceived to be closely aligned with the government have been targets of strong acts of aggression, presumably by people who oppose the coup d’état. Other media outlets that are perceived as backing the resistance movement have seen their journalistic efforts constantly affected both by agents of the State as well as by private individuals who restrict their reporting work. In the current sharply polarized environment, there are few media outlets that have made a public commitment to civil organizations that they will present pluralistic information without having their editorial position affect their reporting. However, the task of providing information freely is not easy to sustain, as the de facto government has powerful mechanisms for interference and intimidation that can be used either openly or covertly, with the excuse of formally applying pre-existing laws. In addition, the threats and violent attacks by private individuals have seriously hampered the exercise of the journalistic profession.
Closure of Media Outlets
The IACHR was informed that on June 28, military personnel occupied the installations for the transmission antennas of various television and radio channels in the vicinity of Cerro de Canta Gallo, in Tegucigalpa, and kept technicians from turning on the transmitters for several hours. The transmission antennas of Channels 5 and 3, Channel 57, Channel 9, Channel 33, Channel 36, Channel 30, Channel 54, and Channel 11 are all in that area. This measure, along with the constant cutoffs of electric power, hampered the ability of these channels to transmit signals. On another matter, the State-owned Channel 8 did not transmit for more than a day. When it resumed its transmission, its management had changed, as well as its programming. The signals of several private channels—Channel 6, Channel 11, Maya TV, and Channel 36 in Tegucigalpa; and La Cumbre and Televisora de Aguán, channel 5, in the department of Colón—were interrupted by military takeovers or on instructions from the Army.
Also occupied or surrounded by members of the public forces were Radio Progreso, in the city of El Progreso, department of Yoro; Radio Globo, in Tegucigalpa; Radio Juticalpa, in the department of Olancho; and Radio Marcala, in the department of La Paz. In this last case, members of the military tried to shut down the radio station, but residents in the area blocked their path and the station kept transmitting.
Besides this situation, it was confirmed that the National Telecommunications Commission (CONATEL) gave instructions to cable television providers that either directly or indirectly led them to remove from their lineup international channels or national programs transmitted by local channels. Such was the case of CNN en Español, Telesur, Cubavisión Internacional, Guatevisión, and Ticavisión, among others.
In the morning hours of June 28, there were selective power outages, according to complaints received by the IACHR. The power outages hampered the ability of radio and television stations to transmit freely, included sectors where the transmission towers operated, and affected telephone services for both land lines and cellular phones.
Detentions of Members of the Media
The IACHR received information to the effect that several journalists were detained, attacked, and threatened for reasons directly linked to the exercise of their profession. On June 28, 2009, cartoonist Allan McDonald was detained along with his 17-month-old daughter, by soldiers belonging to the Armed Forces who broke into his house and burned his cartoons and drawing materials. That same day, members of the public forces held a group of reporters from Telesur and The Associated Press in Tegucigalpa to question them about their visa status. This operation, against Telesur and VTV, was repeated on July 11. The following morning, members of the police forces kept the reporters from leaving the hotel for several hours. The crews from both channels left Honduras the next day because they believed that their security was at risk.
The journalists illegally detained and beaten by members of the public forces included: Naún Palacios, in Tocoa, Colón, on June 30, 2009; Mario Amaya, a photographer from the Diario Hoy, on July 2; Rommel Gómez, in San Pedro Sula; the director of Radio Coco Dulce, Alfredo López, on August 12 in Tegucigalpa; and journalist Gustavo Cardoza of Radio Progreso, on August 14, in Cortés. At that same demonstration, an independent journalist from Tela, Edwin Castillo, was beaten by security forces.
Attacks and Threats against the Media
The IACHR received information about serious and multiple attacks suffered by journalists due to acts carried out by public forces or private individuals, but always for the purpose of preventing them from freely doing their work. Thus, for example, Juan Ramón Sosa of the daily newspaper La Tribuna was beaten and insulted when he covered a demonstration on June 29 in Tegucigalpa. According to the information received, photojournalist Wendy Olivo of the Agencia Bolivariana de Noticias was assaulted by members of the public forces when she tried to photograph people who had been detained at a police station and refused to turn over her camera. On July 30, a number of journalists and cameramen were allegedly assaulted by members of the police in the context of security forces’ response to the demonstration that day in Tegucigalpa. According to the information received, Karen Méndez, a journalist from Telesur, was pushed and threatened by a police officer, while a cameraman from the same station, Roger Guzmán, was also attacked and had work materials seized. José Oseguera and Luis Andrés Bustillo, cameramen from the Maya TV program “Hable como Habla,” were allegedly beaten in the Durazno area, on the northern exit out of Tegucigalpa, on July 30, 2009. Edgardo Castro, a journalist from the Televisora Hondureña de Compayagua, allegedly was assaulted on July 30, 2009, when he was filming police actions against protestors at the demonstration in Tegucigalpa. His equipment was also allegedly damaged. On August 5, 2009, a photographer from the daily Tiempo, Héctor Clara Cruz, was covering a student demonstration at the National Autonomous University of Honduras and was beaten by members of the police so that he would stop taking pictures of the confrontation. On August 12, 2009, Richard Cazulá, a Channel 36 cameraman, allegedly was beaten by members of the public forces and his camera was allegedly damaged, when he was filming a demonstration in Tegucigalpa. On August 14, 2009, during a demonstration, a group of police attacked photographer Julio Umaña from the daily Tiempo—who had shown them his accreditation—and confiscated his materials.
In terms of attacks against journalists that stem from actions of private individuals, the IACHR observes that for the most part these took place while they were covering demonstrations. In Tegucigalpa, three journalists from the Channel 42 program “Entrevistado” allegedly were attacked on June 28, 2009, by a group of demonstrators, who also knocked them down and broke their cameras. On June 29, 2009, El Heraldo photographer Johnny Magallanes allegedly was attacked when he was covering a demonstration in front of the Presidential House in Tegucigalpa. On July 1, some demonstrators who presumably belonged to the resistance movement assaulted Carlos Rivera, a correspondent for Radio América in the city of Santa Rosa de Copán. Henry Carvajal and Martín Rodríguez, a photographer and journalist from the newspaper La Tribuna, reported that they had been subject to acts of aggression by demonstrators belonging to the resistance on July 26 in the department of El Paraíso.
In addition, information was received indicating that several members of the media have been threatened since the coup d’état as a result of their work in journalism. The threats have come from different sectors and have been made via the telephone, electronically, or in person, when the journalists cover demonstrations or news events related to the political crisis. The IACHR was able to note that threats to prevent the free exercise of journalism have been on the rise in recent weeks. Members of the media who have been subject to serious threats include, among others: Madeleine García and other members of the Telesur crew; Esdras Amado López (Channel 36); Eduardo Madonado (“Hable como Habla” on Maya TV); Jorge Otts Anderson (La Cumbre channel in Tocoa, Colón); Johnny Lagos (El Libertador); José Luis Galdámez (“Tras la Verdad” program on Radio Globo); Andrés Molina (Radio Juticalpa); Carlos Lara, Wilfredo Paz, and Rigoberto Mendoza (in Tocoa, Colón); members of Radio Progreso; members of Radio La Voz Lenca, among other independent or community radio stations; Francisco Montero (Radio Sonaguera); and Héctor Castellanos (a program on Radio Globo), to name some examples of threats coming from members of the public forces or from sectors presumably associated with the de facto government. In addition, Carlos Mauricio Flores and Fernando Berrios, of El Heraldo, received death threats in the context of violent attacks on the newspaper for which they work; these presumably came from radical groups opposed to the coup d’état. Finally, Dagoberto Rodríguez of Radio Cadena Voces has also suffered acts of aggression and threats presumably made by groups that belong to the resistance movement.
Attacks on Media Outlets
As has been stated previously, the IACHR observed a growing polarization that has manifested itself, among other ways, in the form of violent attacks by private individuals against the communications media. Such attacks appear to have intensified in recent weeks.
Information was received about an attempted attack on Radio América on June 30, when a bomb was placed on the broadcaster’s premises in Tegucigalpa. On the night of July 4, in Tegucigalpa, an unidentified individual allegedly left an explosive device in the Centro Comercial Prisa, the shopping center where the offices of the newspaper Tiempo and Channel 11 are located. At the end of July, an explosive device was found against the Channel 6 facilities in San Pedro Sula. On August 14, hooded and armed individuals burned a vehicle that was delivering the newspaper La Tribuna. The next day, unidentified persons launched five Molotov cocktails against the building of the daily El Heraldo; these nearly caused a fire in the newspaper’s offices.
Based on Article 13 of the American Convention on Human Rights, the State has the international obligation to guarantee and protect freedom of expression. It should refrain from using direct or indirect mechanisms of intimidation and should protect the life and physical integrity of members of the media, whatever their editorial stance. Consequently, the Commission urges the State to respect the free exercise of this right; refrain from using direct or indirect forms of intimidation or censorship; investigate acts of aggression to which members of the media and media outlets have been victims; protect the life and physical integrity of members of the media as well as the installations of media outlets; and promote an atmosphere of tolerance and pluralism that allows for the widest possible debate on public issues.
The Commission confirmed during this visit that the coup d’état of June 28 has created a situation of democratic illegitimacy that has a negative impact on the fulfillment of the human rights of all the people of Honduras.
The Commission confirmed the existence of a pattern of disproportionate use of public force on the part of police and military forces, arbitrary detentions, and the control of information aimed at limiting political participation by a sector of the citizenry. This resulted in the deaths of at least four persons, dozens of injuries, thousands of arbitrary detentions, the temporary shutdown of television channels, and threats and assaults against journalists.
The Commission verified the existence of a sharp polarization that has influenced the communications media and that affects the free flow of information and the possibility of a vigorous, unrestrained debate of issues related to the interruption of the institutional order. The Commission was also able to confirm the existence of serious restrictions to the exercise of freedom of expression coming from the de facto government, which have generated an atmosphere of intimidation that inhibits the free exercise of freedom of expression. Finally, the Commission was able to prove the existence of death threats and violent attacks from various sectors against journalists and media outlets due to their editorial position.
Based on the American Convention on Human Rights, ratified by the State in 1977, the State has the international obligation to prevent violations of human rights when they occur, and to investigate, try, and punish those responsible. To this effect, the Commission urges the State to respect the right to life, to humane treatment, to individual liberty, and to freedom of expression.
The Commission would especially like to call attention to the valuable work of human rights defenders. They have played a key role in obtaining information and in working to protect people’s rights, under conditions of personal risk.
The Commission will continue to observe the human rights situation in Honduras in the context of the coup d’état and will make its final report on this visit public in the near future.
The bodies of the inter-American human rights system have maintained on repeated occasions that the democratic system is the principal guarantee for the observance of human rights. In this regard, the Commission considers that only the return to the democratic institutional system in Honduras will make it possible for the conditions to be in place for the effective fulfillment of the human rights of all the people of Honduras.