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.

FONGI: Deep concern about the approval of Law 5257

We express our deep concern about the approval of Law 5257 by the Congress of the Republic of Guatemala, which contains requirements that negatively affect and limit the exercise of human rights, as well as administrative controls that could be applied in a discretionary manner to constrain the work of civil society entities.

We call on President Alejandro Giammattei not to ratify the Law 5257, which in its current version contains articles that threaten constitutionally guaranteed freedoms and rights, limiting the scope of citizen and civil society actions fundamental to the functioning of a democratic state and the rule of law, precedents that would constitute a major setback in Guatemala’s aspiration to form part of a community of progressive and democratic nations.

COMUNICADO-FONGI-13022020

Killings of Human Rights Defenders

Press conference denouncing murder of community defenders

Last week Dania and I attended a somber press conference denouncing the recent murders of three community leaders who were defending the rights of  campesinos (family farmers) and indigenous Mayans in Guatemala.

Increasingly, community leaders, organizers and activists in Guatemala are coming under attack for defending their land, culture, and the environment.

The Guatemalan government, instead of guaranteeing these rights, has placed human rights defenders at greater risk by openly disparaging their work and their organizations.

Here are some additional resources:

U.N. Human Rights spokeswoman Ravina Shamdasani says human rights defenders in the country are operating within a climate of fear, harassment and intimidation.

“We call on the authorities to promptly investigate these murders and other attacks and threats against human rights defenders, and to ensure that those found responsible are held accountable. We also urge the State to adopt all necessary measures to ensure a safe, enabling environment for human rights defenders to be able to carry out their work free from threats and attacks,” she said.

Human Rights Defenders Killed in Guatemala, by Lisa Schlein of the VOA (article, English)

“We call on the Government to address these issues as part of its efforts to strengthen the rule of law, the protection of the rights to freedom of expression and judicial independence, and the fight against impunity and corruption. We trust that the Government will honor its commitment to advance with the adoption of a Public Policy on the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, with the participation of civil society at local and national levels. We also reiterate the High Commissioner’s call for the Government to strengthen the inter-institutional Unit on Analysis of patterns of attacks against human rights defenders”.

Press briefing notes on Guatemala, by Ravina Shamdasani – Spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (English)

“There is a ongoing policy of repression, intimidation and violence directed at indigenous communities and peasant famers. Illegal, clandestine security groups are being armed and financed by powerful sectors that are fomenting land grabs, impunity and corruption in the region.”

Ante el Desalojo de Dirigentes Comunitarios, by Civil Society organizations (Press release, Español).

 

Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2016

The U.S. State Department has just released its annual report documenting the human rights situation of countries around the world.

Unfortunately, the current Secretary of State has decided to downplay the importance of this yearly event, revealing the Trump administration’s apparent disregard for human rights observance and reporting.

Nonprofit Quarterly writes:

Given that the 41st annual Human Rights Reports were issued by the Trump administration, the rollout naturally included some controversy, which centered on the decision by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson not to hold an official unveiling.

Critics argued that his absence gave the report less attention, as Reuters reported, with only an anonymous U.S. official answering reporters’ questions by phone instead of the usual press conference.

The administration’s commitment to human rights was already under fire, after news recently emerged that the U.S. is considering leaving the United Nations’ Human Rights Council under new Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley.

The 2016 U.S. State Department Report on Human Rights Practices for Guatemala, with a fairly conservative analysis of the human rights situation, states that:

Local human rights NGO Unit for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders reported 14 killings of human rights defenders through November 30, compared with 12 killings in all of 2015. The NGO also reported 205 attacks against human rights defenders through October, compared with 493 attacks in all of 2015.

According to various human rights NGOs, many of the attacks related to land disputes and exploitation of natural resources.

Here is the Guatemala 2016 Human Rights Report:

GUATEMALA 2016 HUMAN RIGHTS REPORT