Human Rights Defender Julio Gómez Will Face Trial
On April 23, the GHRC team was with human rights defender Julio Gómez Lucas as appeared in court in Huehuetenango for a hearing on unsubstantiated charges related to a protest in 2017. Gómez, an indigenous Maya Chuj leader, faces several charges filed by Generadora San Mateo, the company behind two hydroelectric projects in the region and a subsidiary of Energía y Renovacion, S. A. His criminalization is one more incident of intimidation against him. Since 2014, he has suffered threats and violence, and in 2019 he was detained and tortured by members of a neighboring community who are reported to be supporters of the hydroelectric projects and employees of the company. The company is financed by the private arm of the Inter-American Development Bank, IDB Invest, as well as the Central American Bank for Economic Integration and a Canadian financial intermediary. The charges against Gómez form part of a pattern of intimidation of leaders defending land and the environment noted by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights in its 2020 report.
Gómez, who was a delegate representing thousands of community members in negotiations with the government, was arrested in January of last year, a day after President Alejandro Giammattei visited Gomez’ home community of San Mateo Ixtatán. Accompanied by hundreds of police and military, the president announced “the return of the State to the north of Huehuetenango,” which he said would support the Acuerdo por la Paz y el Desarrollo de San Mateo Ixtatán (Plan for Peace and Security for San Mateo Ixtatán). Arrested and detained, Gómez was charged with illegal demonstration and incitement to commit a crime, as well as other supposed crimes later dropped by the prosecution. The acts allegedly took place during a protest against the two hydroelectric plants on November 13, 2017. During the demonstration, a National Civil Police station was attacked and patrol cars were reportedly damaged. Although there are witness testimonies presented by the Public Prosecutor’s Office, in which they mention that the same company had called for an alleged meeting on November 13, as well as photographs and videos of the demonstration exist, Gómez is not pictured in them and no reliable evidence links him to any crime.
An arrest warrant was issued for the defender in June 2018, though he was not informed of the warrant or his alleged crimes, and the warrant was not carried out until eighteen months later, in January 2020. Demands by more than forty-five groups, including GHRC, for the immediate dismissal of the unsubstantiated charges, the safety of Gómez while in custody, and an investigation into the arbitrary nature of Gómez’ detention were ignored; Gómez was detained in January and placed under house arrest soon after in February 2020.
Peaceful Resistance of the Microregion of Ixquisis
The Resistencia Pacifica constantly “face threats, violence and sexiual harrassment, intimidation, surveillance, physical attacks, constant campaigns of defamation, stigmatization, and slander in local and national media.”
In 2017, more than 75 attacks, killings and accounts of harassment against Peaceful Resistance members were recorded.
The Company Asks for Change of Date and Location
Gómez’ intermediate stage hearing–the stage of the criminal process in which evidence is admitted or rejected–was scheduled for January 26, 2021, a year after his arrest, and was held in Santa Eulalia, Huehuetengo. The hearing was suspended before being completed, however, and the companies’ attorneys asked to have the hearing moved to the capital of the Huehuetenango department, claiming that they felt intimidated by “members of communities against development of the northern region of Huehuetenango” and that there were “young men strategically located on corners outside the courthouse with cell phones ready for immediate communication.”
This tactic, explains one of Gómez’ lawyers, Robel Toledo, is part of the company’s commitment to malicious litigation against Gómez. An appeal by the defense to prevent the move was denied.
The Judge Rejects Gomez’ Defense Arguments
Along with representatives of the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights, the Unit for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders in Guatemala (UDEFEGUA), and ACOGUATE, the GHRC team in Guatemala was in Huehuetenango on April 23 to observe the hearing. GHRC also submitted a letter of recommendation in support of Gómez, highlighting our history with him and his extensive work peacefully leading his community. Police and security forces heavily guarded the entrance and the hallways of the courthouse.
At the top of the hearing, Gómez’ lawyer, Natalio Rivera, raised several procedural issues, including the question of whether the Generadora San Mateo company should be the plaintiff in the case. Rivera argued that the crimes that Gómez allegedly committed are described as damage to the civil police, not the company. He claimed that if the charges against Gómez were to be pursued, the state should file them, not a private company. The judge ultimately rejected the argument, allowing the company to remain the plaintiff.
The Public Prosecutor’s Office presented the charges against Gómez, claiming that witnesses identified Gómez at the protest; though all those who carried out the violence were hooded and faces couldn’t be seen, these witnesses, according to the prosecution, identified Gómez by his height and voice. The supposed witnesses, according to the prosecutor, allege he was carrying a loudspeaker, a gun, a rock, and a stick. Witnesses reportedly claim to have seen him from a hilltop, though the hilltop in question was more than 500 meters away from the site of the violence. One of these witnesses claimed to have met Gómez in Guatemala at a time when Gómez was not in Guatemala but was living in the United States.
The evidence presented, a photo album from the incident, does not show Gómez committing the crimes and he cannot be identified in any of the images. Furthermore, no evidence was presented to suggest he was armed. Based on the many ambiguities, contradictions, and lack of evidence, the defense requested the judge to dismiss the case and requested Julio Gómez’ immediate release.
Despite the arguments from the defense, the judge, who could be seen sleeping at various points during the defense’s argument, ruled that sufficient evidence of Gómez’ participation in the 2017 incidents existed.The judge thus declared the opening of the trial of Julio Gómez on charges of incitement to commit a crime and unlawful demonstration and assembly, removing the crime of being armed which was always a false accusation. He scheduled the trial to begin with a hearing in Huehuetenango on May 7 of this year.
GHRC is concerned about the increasing use of criminalization as a tactic to silence indigenous leaders engaged in the defense of their land, resources, and human rights. We will continue to accompany Julio Gómez and call attention to his case as one more example where repression rules, not the law.