Global Palm Oil Traders Acknowledge the Need to Prevent Human Rights Abuses in Guatemala

Civil Society Pressure Shines a Spotlight on Ongoing Environmental Destruction and Murder in Guatemala’s Palm Sector

June 8, 2016

One year after a massive spill of toxic palm oil effluent into Guatemala’s Pasión River that was labeled an ‘ecocide’ by a Guatemalan court, and nine months after the killing of a Guatemalan activist who denounced the spill, social movement groups in Guatemala are still demanding justice, and companies have begun to recognize that such violence and ecocide must not be tolerated.

Last week, Cargill, one of the largest purchasers of palm oil from Guatemala, published a statement requiring REPSA, the Guatemalan company that was the defendant in the ecocide case, to take a series of actions to prevent future violence. The same day, REPSA published a “Policy on Non Violence and Intimidation.”

The companies’ statements come in the wake of a series of tragic events, and as a response to continued pressure from Guatemalan civil society and international advocacy groups.

Following a deadly spill of pesticide-laden palm oil waste into the Pasión River in the municipality of Sayaxché in northern Guatemala in June 2015, a Guatemalan court ruled the spill an “ecocide” and ordered that REPSA suspend operations pending investigation. Immediately following the ruling, in September, 2015, one of the plaintiffs, Q’eq’chi Mayan schoolteacher Rigoberto Lima Choc, was shot and killed.

In response, civil society groups in Guatemala have pursued a series of legal actions and non-violent protests, and a coalition of international advocacy groups including Friends of the Earth-US, Rainforest Action Network, ActionAid USA, Oxfam America and the Guatemala Human Rights Commission/USA have called on global palm oil giants Wilmar, Cargill, IOI, ADM, AAK and Bunge to publicly denounce the violence, cut ties to REPSA, and take clear steps to address human rights risks in their supply chains. Friday’s statements from Cargill and REPSA are the first visible signs that companies recognize the need to address civil society’s demands.

“The clear denunciation of violence by both Cargill and REPSA is a positive step and clearly needed given the recent murder and kidnapping of activists,” said Gemma Tillack, Agribusiness Campaign Director for Rainforest Action Network. “The statement issued by Cargill contains a number of clear demands that REPSA must comply with to maintain contracts – but this falls short of local civil society demands for the shut down of REPSA’s palm oil operations that were responsible for the ecocide of the Pasión River.”

“Cargill’s public position against violence and REPSA’s promise of reform are significant,” said Jeff Conant, Senior International Forests Program Director at Friends of the Earth-US. “But real transformation will only come when the rights of local people take full precedence over the profits of agribusiness.”

“REPSA has thus far not engaged civil society groups effectively and there is no indication that the security situation in the region will allow for meaningful and safe dialogue with local groups,” Conant added. “There is a clear need for the companies to act – but company engagement in regions suffering high levels of violence and weak governance is extremely delicate. The companies must take their cues from the demands of organized civil society in Guatemala to avoid creating more conflict.”

The anniversary of the June, 2015 toxic leak and fish kill that covered over 100 kilometers in the Pasión River was marked by a march in which some 800 residents of Sayaxché took to the streets to demand justice. A key demand of many local groups is that REPSA permanently cease its operations in the region.

REPSA’s Non-Violence and Intimidation Policy is open for two months of public comment, but the company has not yet provided a plan for engagement with local stakeholders. Cargill has made it known that in order to continue doing business with REPSA, REPSA must “engage local communities and civil society groups… to rebuild trust by creating a participatory process in partnership with local communities and civil society.”

Relations between the palm oil supplier and local groups is especially tense due to the unresolved murder of environmental and human rights defender Rigoberto Lima Choc immediately following a court ruling against REPSA last September. The international NGO coalition is concerned that the companies’ positions are out of touch with local communities that are calling for the full rejection of REPSA’s operations in the region.

“Lima Choc’s murder shows the severity of the threats facing activists, and remains an open wound that will not be healed by words on paper,” said Kelsey Alford-Jones, Director of the Guatemala Human Rights Commission/USA. “Yesterday, hundreds of brave community members gathered in Sayaxché to demand that REPSA permanently close down its operations.”

“Thousands of Guatemalans rely on the Pasión River to earn a living and feed their families, but the negligent actions of REPSA are putting their way of life at risk. REPSA and its parent company, Grupo Olmeca, must be held to account for the damage its operations have done to these communities,” said Doug Hertzler, Senior Policy Analyst at ActionAid USA.

It is too early to tell what repercussions Cargill’s statement may have for the resolution of grievances in Guatemala, or for its palm oil supply, much of which is sold in Europe.

“While some companies that source from REPSA and Grupo Olmeca, including Cargill, have listened to civil society asks and taken positive steps, others remain silent,” noted Oxfam America Policy Advisor Aditi Sen. “All companies have a responsibility to respect human rights, and must have transparent processes in place to investigate human rights impacts in their supply chains and ensure that those harmed by their operations or suppliers are able to access remedy.”

Other companies that purchase from REPSA, directly or indirectly, include global palm oil traders Wilmar, IOI, ADM, AAK and Bunge.

Signed:

Guatemala Human Rights Commission/USA
Friends of the Earth-United States
Rainforest Action Network
Oxfam America
ActionAid USA

For more information on the case, visit GHRC’s website: http://www.ghrc-usa.org/our-work/current-cases/african-palm-oil-production-repsa-ecocide-case/

 

Organizaciones internacionales celebran la apertura a juicio del caso CREOMPAZ

GHRC has joined six other international organizations in applauding the recent ruling in the CREOMPAZ case. On June 7, a Guatemalan judge ruled that 8 former military officials would face trial on charges of forced disappearance and crimes against humanity. The judge had heard weeks of testimony and reviewed extensive evidence uncovered on the CREOMPAZ military base in Cobán, including 565 bodies exhumed from 85 clandestine cemeteries. Fourteen people were initially detained in January, and eight others remain fugitives of justice. International organizations expressed concern about acts of intimidation and hate speech used during the process, but called the ruling an important step in the fight against impunity.  

8 de junio de 2016

El día de ayer, la jueza Claudette Domínguez, del Juzgado de Mayor Riesgo A, ordenó que Manuel Benedicto Lucas García, exjefe del Estado Mayor General del Ejército, junto con otros 7 exmilitares, deben enfrentar un juicio por desaparición forzada y crímenes contra los deberes de humanidad, sobre la base de pruebas científicas y testimonios de sobrevivientes. Asimismo concluyó la etapa intermedia del proceso que había iniciado el 3 de mayo de 2016.

En 2012, en el marco de la investigación del caso, fueron hallados 85 cementerios clandestinos en la zona militar de Cobán—hoy sede del Comando Regional de Entrenamiento de Operaciones de Paz, CREOMPA—, en los cuales se exhumaron las osamentas de 565 personas, entre niños, niñas, adultos y mayores, pertenecientes a los pueblos maya de Poqomchí, Achí, Q’eqchí, K’iché, Poqomchi’, Achi, Q’eqchi’, K’iche’ e Ixil. Hasta la fecha, se ha logrado identificar a 128 víctimas, representadas en el proceso penal por seis organizaciones que actúan como querellantes, y apoyan la labor del Ministerio Público, para poner fin a la impunidad que persiste desde hace más de 35 años.

El pasado 6 de enero, fueron detenidos 14 exmilitares de alto rango, quienes desempeñaron sus funciones en la zona militar 21 de Cobán, entre 1980 y 1987. En esa época, ocurrieron numerosas desapariciones forzadas y otras graves violaciones a los derechos humanos contra la población civil, cometidas por el Ejército de Guatemala en todo el territorio nacional. Ocho personas siguen prófugas de la justicia en este caso.

Además, en mayo del presente año, el Juzgado dictó la falta de mérito en contra de tres de los exmilitares capturados, y separó del proceso penal a otro de los acusados para determinar su capacidad mental para enfrentar un juicio penal.

Son preocupantes los actos de intimidación ocurridos en el marco del proceso en contra de los defensores y las defensoras de derechos humanos con vinculación al mismo, por parte de personas y organizaciones afines a los militares procesados. Asimismo, hubo varias manifestaciones en pro de los militares sindicados en frente del Tribunal, antes y después de las audiencias, con carteles y eslóganes hostiles y agresivos en contra de las personas y organizaciones cercanas al caso. Estos hechos evidencian un discurso de odio que pretende desacreditar a las víctimas y los querellantes adhesivos y generar un clima de miedo. Cabe recordar que es responsabilidad del Estado brindar las medidas adecuadas para garantizar la seguridad de los sujetos procesales y del público presente en las audiencias.

Las organizaciones internacionales que suscriben este comunicado celebran la apertura a juicio en el caso. Esta decisión representa un paso importante para la lucha contra la impunidad de las graves violaciones a los derechos humanos, ocurridas durante el conflicto armado interno en Guatemala, y para el cumplimiento de la obligación del Estado de investigar, juzgar y sancionar dichos crímenes. Decisiones como ésta, representan el camino a seguir para garantizar el acceso a la justicia y a la verdad, de las víctimas de estos graves delitos y sus familiares, así como de la sociedad guatemalteca en general.

Firmado:

Guatemala Human Rights Commission/USA
International Platform against Impunity
Due Process of Law Foundation
Lawyers Without Borders Canada
Impunity Watch
Washington Office on Latin America
Center for Justice and International Law

Suspension of Hearing in Molina Theissen Case Opens Doors to Malicious Litigation and Revictimization of the Family

[en español abajo]

The intermediate-stage hearing scheduled for April 19 in the Molina Theissen case was suspended by the presiding judge. The criminal case is based on the illegal capture and torture suffered by Emma Molina Theissen between September 27 and October 5, 1981 and the disappearance of 14-year-old Marco Antonio Molina Theissen on October 6, 1981. The latter was an act of revenge committed by members of the Guatemalan military for his sister’s escape from the military zone in Quetzaltenango where she had been illegally detained. Those accused of committing these crimes, Edilberto Letona Linares, Francisco Luis Gordillo, Manuel Callejas y Callejas y Hugo Zaldaña Rojas, have been indicted and are in pre-trial detention.

Yesterday as the trial was set to begin the judge informed the parties that she had processed an appeal filed by one of the accused, Letona Linares, challenging a prior ruling from March 1, 2016 denying the petition to apply the National Reconciliation Law (“amnesty law”). In sharing her decision, she said that despite the fact that the law required the hearing to move forward, she considered it necessary to suspend the opening of the hearing in order to avoid later rulings that could force the repetition of previous stages of the trial.

The Molina Theissen family, as a joint prosecutor in the case, expressed its disagreement, based on Article 408 of the Criminal Code which specifies that appeals shall be granted without suspending the proceedings; Article 291 also indicates that “if the court rejects a motion it will order the correct procedures be followed.”

The suspension of the hearing is detrimental to the Guatemalan justice system, it re-victimizes the family, above all Marco Antonio’s mother. Furthermore, it is contrary to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR) ruling against the Guatemalan government in the supervisory hearing regarding compliance with Court sentences, on November 24, 2014.[1] Compliance is obligatory due to the principal of Conventionality Control, given that Guatemala is party to the American Convention on Human Rights. In its resolution, regarding the obligation to investigate, prosecute and punish those implicated in the violation of the rights of Marco Antonio and the victims in eleven other cases sentenced by the Inter-American entity, the IACHR specifies that judges’ actions should not become delay tactics or impede the judicial process, and that the State should abstain from resorting to amnesty, applying statutes of limitations or establishing exemptions from responsibility.

The judge’s decision today opens the door to more delay tactics and suggests an eventual push-back of the trial date, which violates the right to access to justice for the victims of serious human rights violations and the principal of speedy judicial remedy. The family will remain attentive to the impacts on the case and will continue to demand justice for Marco Antonio, as well as demanding the identification and return of his remains to provide a dignified burial. The family has strong convictions that only justice will make it possible to ensure that Guatemalan boys and girls NEVER AGAIN suffer torture and forced disappearance.

Molina Theissen Family 

Guatemala, April 19, 2016

[1]http://www.corteidh.or.cr/docs/supervisiones/12_casos_24_11_15.pdf


Suspensión de audiencia en Caso Molina Theissen Abre las Puertas al Litigio Malicioso Revictimiza a la Familia 

La audiencia de fase intermedia programada para el 19 de abril en el caso Molina Theissen fue suspendida por la jueza contralora. El proceso penal es impulsado por la captura ilegal y torturas sufridas por Emma entre el 27 de septiembre y el 5 de octubre de 1981 y la desaparición del niño de 14 años Marco Antonio Molina el 6 de octubre de 1981, un acto de venganza cometido por elementos del ejército guatemalteco debido a la fuga de su hermana de la zona militar de Quezaltenango en donde estuvo ilegalmente retenida. Como sindicados por estos hechos se encuentran ligados a proceso penal y en prisión preventiva los señores Edilberto Letona Linares, Francisco Luis Gordillo, Manuel Callejas y Callejas y Hugo Zaldaña Rojas.

Ayer, una vez instalado el tribunal y antes del inicio de la diligencia, la juzgadora informó de que había dado trámite a la apelación presentada por el sindicado Letona Linares contra la resolución previa de denegar la petición de aplicar la Ley de Reconciliación Nacional (“ley de amnistía”), del 1 de marzo de 2016. Al expresar su decisión dijo que, pese a considerar que la ley demandaba la realización de dicha audiencia, consideraba necesario suspender el acto procesal de apertura a juicio para evitar que resoluciones posteriores obligasen a “retrotraer” a etapas procesales ya concluidas.

La familia Molina Theissen, en tanto querellante adhesiva en el proceso, expresó su desacuerdo con base en el artículo 408 del Código Procesal Penal (CPP) el cual precisa que todas las apelaciones se otorgarán sin que se deba suspender el procedimiento; asimismo, el artículo 291 indica que “si el tribunal rechaza la cuestión mandará seguir el procedimiento”.

La suspensión de la audiencia es perjudicial para la justicia guatemalteca, revictimiza a la familia, sobre todo a la madre de Marco Antonio, y contraviene lo ordenado por la Corte Interamericana de Derechos Humanos (Corte IDH) al Estado de Guatemala en su resolución de supervisión de cumplimiento de sentencia del 24 de noviembre de 2014[1], obligatoria por el principio de control de convencionalidad dado que es parte de la Convención Americana sobre Derechos Humanos. En esta resolución, sobre la obligación de investigar, juzgar y castigar a los implicados en la violación a los derechos humanos de Marco Antonio y las víctimas de otros once casos juzgados por este órgano interamericano, la Corte IDH especifica que los jueces deben actuar de manera que los recursos judiciales no tengan efectos dilatorios y entorpecedores en el proceso, así como que el Estado se debe abstener de recurrir a la amnistía, la prescripción o el establecimiento de excluyentes de responsabilidad.

La decisión de la juzgadora abre las puertas para más recursos dilatorios y plantea un eventual retardo de la apertura a juicio, lo cual significa la violación al derecho de acceso a la justicia de las víctimas de graves violaciones a los derechos humanos y al principio de justicia pronta y cumplida. La familia se mantendrá atenta a las incidencias del proceso y continuará demandando justicia para Marco Antonio, así como la ubicación y devolución de sus restos para sepultarlos dignamente con la convicción de que solamente la justicia hará posible que NUNCA MÁS los niños y niñas guatemaltecos sufran torturas y desaparición forzada.

Familia Molina Theissen

Guatemala, 19 de abril de 2016

[1] http://www.corteidh.or.cr/docs/supervisiones/12_casos_24_11_15.pdf

2 Found Guilty in Historic Sepur Zarco Sexual Slavery Case

On Friday, February 26, 2016 Judge Jassmin Barrios read a summary of the verdict in the historic case of sexual and domestic slavery against Maya Q´eqchi´ women in 1982-83.

The Guatemalan court found both Colonel Esteelmer Reyes and Military Commissioner Heriberto Valdez Asij GUILTY of Crimes Against Humanity for abuses that include sexual violence, sexual slavery, domestic slavery, and cruel and degrading treatment, and sentenced them to 30 years in prison.

Additionally, the court found Reyes guilty on murder charges, adding 90 years to his sentence, 30 years for each of 3 victims. The court also found Asij guilty of enforced disappearance, adding 210 years to his sentence, 30 years for each of 7 men. In the parallel civil process for economic reparation, the men were ordered to pay indemnization to the victims and their families.

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The trial took place over four intense week of testimony of survivors and expert witnesses, who detailed the pattern of military operations in the area, and the lasting impacts of the violence suffered by the women.

“The day of the sentence was so important for justice in Guatemala,” said Dania Rodriguez, GHRC’s representative in Guatemala who observed much of the trial. “The verdict was to be read at 4pm, but some people began waiting in line hours before to ensure they could be present in the courtroom.”

As Judge Barrios read the sentence, a palpable silence fell over the crowded room. She detailed the violence the women suffered, reiterating their innocence, and explaining the evidence that confirmed the command responsibility of the two accused.

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“This isn’t only about the victims,” the sentence concludes, “but about all of society. These acts should not be repeated.”

When the judge finished reading, a moment of silence hung in air, before the room erupted in applause, and chants of “Justice.”

“We all felt the gravity of the moment, the long-awaited response of the justice system for these brave women,” said Rodriguez.

The following week, on March 2, the court heard arguments for reparations. Colonel Reyes was ordered to pay a total of 5.5 million Quetzales ($732,700 USD) to the 11 women. Military Commissioner Valdez Asij was ordered to pay a total of 1.7 million Quetzales ($226,500 USD) to the families of the 7 men who were disappeared.

The court also ordered the sentence be translated into 24 Mayan languages, that information about the case be included in school curricula, that monuments be built to honor the women who suffered sexual violence by the army, and that the Defense Ministry give trainings on human rights and violence against women.

GHRC celebrates this important ruling and reiterates our solidarity with the brave women who came forward to tell their testimonies.

Guatemala News Update: Feb. 6-12

Public Prosecutor’s Office presents skeletons as evidence at the Sepur Zarco hearings

In the seventh day of hearings by the judges of the Sepur Zarco case, the Public Prosecutor’s Office presented as evidence boxes with the skeletons of 48 people. One expert, Juan Carlos Gatíca, explained where the bones had been exhumed and the analysis that had been done to identify them. Another expert, Óscar Ariel Ixpatá, described the types of wounds found on the exhumed bones, explaining that what they found indicated that the victims had bullet wounds and had been beaten. Furthermore, the victims had been blindfolded, bound, and gagged.

Campesinos March for Political Change in Guatemala

Thousands of Guatemalan rural workers protested in the streets of Guatemala City on Wednesday, blocking traffic to pressure President Jimmy Morales into passing political and economic reforms. The campesino organizations listed a variety of demands, including the respect of the constitutional rights of Guatemalan cities, wage levels, environmental protections, and national sovereignty.  Concerning environmental issues, protesters want an end to projects that displace communities and exploit natural resources. They also criticized agreements with transnational organizations, arguing instead for nationalized energy resources to benefit Guatemalans.

The protesters also demanded justice for those who intimidated community leaders, and the freedom of human rights defenders who had been jailed and criminalized. Furthermore, they called for resolution of 135 land conflicts, and housing guarantees.

Minister of Energy and Mining denied new moratorium on mining and will accelerate process to grant licensing

The Minister of Energy and Mines will not maintain a moratorium on new mining licenses and instead seeks to speed up the process of granting requests for licenses. The past two administrations had abstained from granting new licenses. The new officials argue that these projects can help to reduce the high levels of poverty within the country if attention is paid to social and environmental issues, explained the Vice-minister of Sustainable Development, Roberto Velasquez. In contrast, communities who live next to resource extraction projects such as mines, as well as hydroelectric dam projects have almost unanimously opposed them as environmentally harmful, socially destructive, and as driving factors of increased violence and repression in their communities. Continue reading

Relatos del Tribunal: La primera semana de audiencias del caso Sepur Zarco

Por Dania Rodríguez*

[Read in English]

El camino de la justicia para las mujeres q’eqchí, sobrevivientes de violencia sexual y doméstica en el destacamento de Sepur Zarco finalmente ha llegado al inicio del debate oral y público el 1 de febrero de 2016. Los acusados, detenidos en 2014, son el Teniente Coronel Esteelmer Francisco Reyes Girón y el comisionado militar Heriberto Valdez Asig.

Los delitos que el Ministerio Público y abogadas querellantes probaran en contra de los acusados son, en el caso del teniente Coronel Reyes: delitos de deberes contra la humanidad en su forma de violencia sexual, esclavitud sexual y doméstica en contra de 11 mujeres; asesinato de tres mujeres (madre y dos hijas) y tratos crueles en contra de dos niñas. Para el comisionado militar Valdez: desaparición forzada de seis hombres, esposos de seis mujeres víctimas y delitos de deberes contra la humanidad en su forma de violencia sexual en contra de una mujer. Para ello se presentaran peritajes antropológicos, históricos, sociológicos, militares y testimonios de las mujeres víctimas y sobrevivientes y de otras personas que presenciaron los hechos. Continue reading

International organizations applaud the initiation of the Sepur Zarco trial

[Abajo en español]

International organizations applaud the initiation of the first trial for sexual slavery and violence during the armed conflict in Guatemala: the Sepur Zarco Case

Guatemala, Washington D.C. and San José, February 1, 2016.- Today the trial begins in the “Sepur Zarco” case of acts of sexual violence and domestic and sexual slavery committed from 1982 to 1986 by members of the Guatemalan army against Maya Q’eqchi’ women and the forced disappearance of several men. The accused in the case are former soldier Esteelmer Francisco Reyes Girón and former military commissioner Heriberto Valdez Asig.

This will be the first time in the world that a national court has tried a case of wartime sexual slavery case – other cases have been heard in international criminal tribunals – and the first time in Guatemala that crimes of sexual violence have been tried as international crimes. “The Guatemalan judicial system has been a pioneer in investigating complex crimes, demonstrating to other countries that confront similar challenges that it can be done,” stated Leonor Arteaga, a program officer with the Due Process of Law Foundation (DPLF). Continue reading