3 Years… and Counting

Bernardo Caal Xol

Bernardo Caal Xol, a water and environmental defender, has been in prison for exactly three years. He is an innocent man.

Today, January 30, marks the third anniversary of the unjust detention of Bernardo Caal Xol, a professor and indigenous Mayan Q’eqchi’ human rights defender. The Human Rights Defenders Project wishes to express our grave concern and dismay that the courts continue to delay the judicial review of his case. This despite the overwhelming evidence that Bernardo is innocent of the crimes for which he was accused and sentenced to 7 years and 4 months in prison. We feel that this malicious delay is a perverse way to keep him imprisoned and away from his family, his people, and his work in defense of the environment.

Bernardo has denounced that it was for defending the rights of his community and protecting the Cahabón River –considered sacred for the Q’eqchi’ people– that powerful actors have sought to silence his voice and disrupt his work. He affirms that the OXEC Hydroelectric Company, financed by investors in Spain and Guatemala, has sought to make an example of him for daring to oppose the massive dams and their disruptive environmental impact.

On July 16, 2020, Amnesty International declared the defender Bernardo Caal Xol “a prisoner of conscience.” In a letter to Consuelo Porras, Attorney General of the Public Prosecutor’s Office, Amnesty stated that it had access to the criminal case file and was able to verify serious irregularities, negligence, and lack of grounds in the investigation carried out by the Public Prosecutor’s Office.

We join the various expressions of support, solidarity and above all concern that Bernardo continues to be detained and we demand that the Guatemalan authorities seek to remedy this case of criminalization.

Libertad para Bernardo Caal Xol - Preso de Conciencia

Criminalizing human rights defenders for their work is an affront not only to the defender, but also to his or her people. In fact, it is an affront to humanity as a whole. Today more than ever, during this global pandemic, we are made aware of the essential role of water in guaranteeing our collective health and wellbeing. 

Bernardo Caal Xol is a defender of water and life. We demand his release!

Photo of Bernardo Caal Xol © Héctor Herrera

Happy Birthday Bernardo Caal

Bernardo Caal and his family

Hello everyone!

We have an important favor to ask of you. In one week, on January 13, Guatemalan human rights activist Bernardo Caal will celebrate his 49th birthday… in prison.

Bernardo is a loving husband, dedicated father, respected teacher, and committed defender of the environment and the rights of indigenous people.

However, for daring to question the environmental impact of a massive, foreign-owned hydroelectric dam on the Cahabón River – and the negative effect on the indigenous farming communities who live along that river – Bernardo was convicted in a sham trial to 7 years and 4 months in prison.

Amnesty International declared, in June of 2020, that “Bernardo Caal Xol, a Q’eqchi’ Maya Indigenous leader and Guatemalan human rights defender, is a prisoner of conscience who has been wrongfully imprisoned for more than two years.”

Dania and I had the privilege of meeting Bernardo in prison, shortly before the COVID crisis made such visits impossible. Despite putting on a brave face for us, it was evident that his time in prison was beginning to exact a heavy mental, emotional, and physical toll.

With the arrival of the Coronavirus in Guatemala, his situation has only grown more dire. Placed under lockdown, Bernardo is forced to live in inhumane conditions, crowded into the same room as 180 other prisoners. Due to COVID restrictions, family visits are severely limited (his mother and daughters aren’t allowed to visit.) His health has suffered, and his appeal process has been stalled in a backlogged legal system.

Bernardo just wrote, in a letter from prison, “Upon receiving my teaching certificate, I returned to my community. It was there that I became conscious of the injustices, of the abandonment in which the indigenous communities are forced to live: without schools, without teachers, without any of the basic services that the State is obligated to provide.” He adds: “And I, for the third consecutive year, will celebrate my birthday in this place of torture called prison.”

Dania and I would like to invite you to send Bernardo birthday wishes and messages of support and encouragement. We will gladly collect, translate (if necessary), and send your messages to Bernardo before his birthday.

Let’s stand with this brave man during his dark days of suffering and seclusion. Let’s lift him up with our messages of support and solidarity. Please leave a message below or email it to rob@defendersproject.org. Don’t forget to mention your location (city, state, country.) Please share this note with your contacts!

A moment of your time will make an enormous difference to Bernardo and his family! Thank-you.

Justice Can Prevail in Guatemala

A march for justice in Guatemala

It has been frustrating to witness as powerful forces in Guatemala have implemented an authoritarian agenda of closing political spaces, limiting access to historical documents, labeling as ‘terrorist’ those who oppose state policies, and weakening the protections for human rights and those who defend them.

Thankfully individuals, organizations and communities have been working together to resist these perverse efforts, through meetings, forums, publications, public protests, and legal actions.

Their efforts have not been in vain.

In the past 48 hours Guatemala’s two highest courts have handed down important rulings that help preserve the rule of law and access to truth and justice. 

Lifting the Limits on Nonprofits

Yesterday afternoon the Constitutional Court provisionally suspended the regressive legislation (Bill 5257, signed into law as Decree 4-2020) that puts at risk the work of nonprofit organizations in Guatemala. The Court stated that the bill “poses a threat to human rights.”

The court added that “the rights to freedom of assembly and to freedom of association provide protection against arbitrary interference by the state and are fundamental to the existence and functioning of a democratic society.”

Bringing the Truth to Light

Just hours ago, the Guatemalan Supreme Court upheld the request of the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office (PDH) to guarantee the protection and full functioning of the Historical Archive of the National Police (AHPN).

The Archive has played an important role by providing evidence leading to the conviction of high-level police and military officials for crimes they committed during the armed conflict. For that reason, it has come under attack by those advancing an agenda of state-sponsored amnesia, amnesty, and impunity.

“Who controls the past controls the future.
Who controls the present controls the past.”

George Orwell, 1984

The former Minister of the Interior (and head of the National Civilian Police), Enrique Degenhart, even tried to restrict access to the archives alleging that “they contain sensitive information concerning national security.”

The Supreme Court, however, ruled in favor of protecting and perpetuating this national resource for years to come.

In their groundbreaking ruling, the magistrates:

  • Declared that, as “a guarantee of the no-repetition” of the crimes committed during the armed conflict, any jurisdiction of the Ministry of the Interior over the archive has been terminated.
  • Ordered the Ministry of the Interior “to cease adopting measures that threaten the integrity of the archive” affirming that the Ministry of Culture has “exclusive jurisdiction to determine the necessary measures for its conservation, protection, and care.”
  • Ordered the Ministry of the Interior to guarantee the permanent use and/or transfer of the building housing the Archive to the Ministry of Culture.
  • Urged the Ministry of Culture to officially designate the Archive as a “a National Cultural Heritage.”
  • Ordered the Ministry of Culture -in no more than four months- to adopt the necessary financial and administrative measures, along with hiring sufficient numbers of qualified personnel, to guarantee the continuity and sustainability of the archival process. 
  • Also ordered the Ministry of Culture, in that same time period, to design and implement a plan for the conservation and safeguarding of the Archive according to international standards relating to “the right to the truth” and the United Nation’s “updated Set of Principles for the protection and promotion of human rights through action to combat impunity.” In order to create this plan, the Ministry should consult with renowned national and international archival experts.

Guatemala often feels like a “one step forward, two steps back” kind of country, at least as far as respect for human rights is concerned. These two rulings, however, provide a glimmer of hope that justice can prevail even in the most difficult of circumstances.

La CC deja en espera las autoridades ancestrales

El 27 de febrero, 2020 se tenía programada una vista pública por una acción de inconstitucionalidad por el Reglamento técnico de bioseguridad para el uso de organismos vivos modificados para uso agropecuario, (impulsado por el MAGA y MINECO) presentada por Municipalidad Indígena de Sololá, en la Corte de Constitucionalidad a las 09:30hrs.

La Corte de Constitucionalidad suspendió la vista pública y notificó en último momento, ochos minutos después de la hora programada, cuando las autoridades de distintas regiones ya nos encontramos presentes.  Lo anterior lo consideramos una falta de respeto hacia: los pueblos indígenas, las autoridades ancestrales, organizaciones del movimiento social y activistas independientes. 

(Leer el comunicado completo abajo.)

comunicado-transgenicos

Law 5257 “facilitates the restriction of constitutional rights” affirm members of the European Parliament

An open letter to Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei concerning Law 5257

The new law leaves it to the executive branch’s discretion to cancel the registration of NGOs and other civil society organizations. According to international standards, involuntary suspension and dissolution are the most serious sanctions that authorities can impose on an organization and should therefore only be used when other less restrictive measures are insufficient, and should be governed by the principles of proportionality and necessity, which is not guaranteed in the current articles.

Furthermore, the law facilitates the restriction of constitutional rights and guarantees such as freedom of association, freedom of expression, as well as the right to petition, among others. It will also limit the capacity of Guatemalan civil society to monitor government activities and to question corruption within the state.

It is of great concern that these restrictive laws reduce the space for civil society, since NGOs are an essential pillar for strengthening democracies. (…)

Letter-MEPs-NGOs-Law-Guatemala