2021 on Track to Be Worst Year for Human Rights Defenders in 20 Years
According to the Unit for Protection of Human Rights Defenders of Guatemala (UDEFEGUA), in the first half of 2021, human rights defenders have been attacked at a rate suggesting this year may surpass 2020 to become the most violent year for human rights defenders in this century. From January to June, 551 attacks on human rights defenders were documented by UDEFEGUA. In 2020, the year with the most attacks against defenders since UDEFEGUA began documenting such attacks in 2000, the total number of attacks on defenders was 1,055.
The attacks documented in the first half of 2021 include five murders of defenders and three attempted murders. The majority of attacks, 137, were carried out against defenders working in the justice sector, followed by those attempting to secure their right to justice (104); journalists (87); and campesinos (49). In an alarming trend, women human rights defenders suffered 42 percent of the attacks. UDEFEGUA cited as concerns the systematic dismantling of public institutions set up to guarantee implementation of the Peace Accords and respect for human rights; the capture of fundamental state institutions; and the guarantee of impunity for actors who engage in corrupt and violent acts.
UN Special Rapporteurs Ask Government for Answers in Case of Bernardo Caal
Four UN Special Rapporteurs in a letter to the Guatemalan government demanded answers to questions involving due process and concerns related to the health of political prisoner Bernardo Caal Xol. The letter–from the Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, the President-Rapporteur of the Working Group on Business and Human Rights, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, and the Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers–was sent on June 21, 2021 and made public this week. The UN Rapporteurs in the nine-page letter called the government’s “urgent concern” to Caal’s case. The UN experts expressed “serious concern over the allegations of the violations of the guarantees to due process in the legal proceedings of indigneous defender Mr. Bernardo Caal Xól,” and well as “the state of health of Mr. Caal Xól that has deteriorated in a concerning manner.” They requested information from the Guatemalan government on nine specific aspects of Caal’s case. In closing, they urged the government to “adopt all necessary measures to to protect the rights and freedoms” of Caal and to “investigate, try, and adequately punish any person responsible for the alleged violations.”
The Guatemalan Government responded on August 19, failing to fully answer the concerns expressed. Regarding concerns expressed by the Rapporteurs about overcrowding in the prison and the risk of COVID-19, for example, the Guatemalan government was silent. The government did attempt to explain the multiple legal delays in Caal’s case; yet days after the government sent UN experts its letter, another such delay occurred. Rather than closing the case as Caal’s lawyers had asked, given that there is no evidence against him, the court on August 24 suspended proceedings for another six months. Caal’s imprisonment continues.
Named a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International in 2020, Caal is imprisoned for his role as leader in the peaceful resistance to two hydroelectric projects on the Cahabón River in northern Guatemala. In 2018, the court sentenced him to more than seven years in prison on spurious charges. Caal’s defense team filed an appeal, but multiple delays have plagued the process. No evidence links Caal to any supposed crimes occurring at a demonstration in 2015. As the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples noted in 2018, the kinds of irregularities that characterize his case “are consistent with the patterns of criminalization directed at those that defend their land and the environment.”
Mexican Authorities Use Excessive Force Against Migrants Traveling North
This week, agents from the Mexican National Migration Institute (INM) attempted to forcibly stop a migrant caravan from traveling north; one video surfaced showing an agent kicking an already immobilized migrant in the face. In response, the Human Rights Observation and Monitoring Collective in the Mexican SE released a joint statement and demanded the “immediate halt to violence against migrants by Mexican state security forces.”
Migrants made the decision to travel north after waiting over a year without access to legal refugee status in Tapachula nor the ability to work. Support for migrants at Mexico’s Southern border is severely lacking, and the migration system is now stressed by Title 42 expulsions of Central American migrants who in recent weeks have been flown from the US to Mexico’s southern border, where Mexico then buses migrants into Guatemalan border towns.
US Agrees to Fly Migrants Directly to Guatemala City
This week–after a visit from Foreign Minister Pedro Brolo Villa to the White House–the US agreed to suspend the program whereby migrants are being bussed to the remote border town of El Ceibo. This comes after Brolo met with Mexico authorities and expressed deep concern, asking that returns of migrants be facilitated through “established reception centers … because they have the necessary conditions to receive these populations in a safe and dignified manner.” After a series of meetings with US officials, Brolo announced that the US will send deportees by air to Guatemala City. He stated, “The most important thing is that they committed to send return flights to the [migrant return] center,” and “that they no longer enter through El Ceibo.”
This past weekend, over 600 migrants who had been expelled from the US and flown to southern Mexico were placed on 17 buses and were left in Guatemala. Human Rights Ombudsman Jordan Rodas expressed concerns on an official visit to El Ceibo, noting the clear lack of capacity of the state to assist migrants in these remote towns.
Update from Cases GHRC is Accompanying
Judge Rules to Close Case Against Criminalized Women Human Rights Defenders in Joyabaj
GHRC has been accompanying the case of Anastasia Mejía and other criminalized defenders from Joyabaj. Mejía is a Maya K’iche’ journalist and human rights defender. Charges against the women were filed by Joyabaj mayor Florencio Carrascoza, who has been named as a corrupt politician on the Engel List. The women suspect the baseless charges against them owe to their work exposing corruption in the municipality.
Today, Mejía as well as Petrona Siy had their intermediate hearing in Nebaj, Quiché. After the prosecution and defense presented their arguments, the case was dismissed. The judge found no evidence to link them to the alleged crimes; the case against Anastasia Mejía and Patrona Siy Castro is closed. Mejía spent more than a month in jail last year and nearly a year under house arrest as she awaiting today’s ruling.
Guatemalan Soldiers to Stand Trial for Alaska Massacre
On October 4, 2012, eight officers under the command of Juan Chiroy opened fire on peaceful protesters from the 48 catones of Totonicapan; six people were killed and one was disappeared. GHRC has monitored the case since 2012 and accompanied the 25 widows, orphans, and victims today at the High Risk Court A in Guatemala City as they continue to seek justice after nine years.
In today’s hearing, Judge Claudia Dominguez ruled that the members of the Guatemalan military arrested for the 2012 Massacre in La Cumbre de Alaska must stand trial for the charge of extrajudicial killing. Both the prosecution–consisting of the Public Prosecutor as well as the legal team representing the victims–and the defense presented evidence to Judge Dominguez. She admitted technical expert opinions, testimonies, and audiovisual evidence from the prosecution. She rejected various forms of evidence from the defense.