Guapinol environmental defenders released from prison after long battle for freedom

Environmental activists from the Guapinol village in northern Honduras had been arbitrarily detained since 2019 for protesting against a mining project

February 28, 2022 by Tanya Wadhwa
The eight Guapinol environmentalists who were persecuted for protesting against a mining project in a protected national park. Photo: Criterio

The environmental activists from the village of Guapinol in northern Honduras were finally released on February 24, two weeks after the Supreme Court of Honduras dismissed the case against them and ordered their release. The environmentalists left the Olanchito prison, in the Yoro municipality, late on the night of February 24.

Since the week prior, family members of the environmentalists and members of the Municipal Committee in Defense of Common and Public Assets, the organization the environmentalists belong to, had been protesting demanding their freedom. On February 24, the relatives and the committee’s members gathered outside the Trujillo Sentencing Court demanding that it comply with the ruling issued by the highest authority and order their release. Earlier, on February 18, they held a sit-in in front of the Supreme Court in the capital Tegucigalpa to condemn the delay in their release and their continued illegal detention.

Gabriela Sorto, daughter of Porfirio Sorto, one of the imprisoned environmentalists, had told Radio Progreso that the judges of the department of Colón were in cahoots with the Inversiones Los Pinares (ILP) mining company. Meanwhile, lawyer Edy Tábora, a member of the legal team of the defenders, pointed out that in the case there was a consolidation of the country’s economic structures that generated legal insecurity.

The Municipal Committee in Defense of Common and Public Assets, in an official statement, criticized “the Trujillo court’s slowness” and rejected the detention of Guapinol river defenders, “despite the fact that the Constitutional Chamber rendered the entire judicial process and the conviction issued by the court worthless and ineffective.”

On February 10, the environmentalists won a victory against the ILP company, when the Supreme Court unanimously threw out the Guapinol case, in which six environmentalists were convicted by the Trujillo Sentencing Court the day before. The Supreme Court ordered their release, ruling that their due process rights were violated, and that they should never have been put on trial. The decision was announced in response to two appeals filed by two of the eight defendants, known as the “Guapinol eight,” in 2020 and 2021.

Honduran authorities had arbitrarily detained the environmentalists since 2019 on trumped-up criminal charges. In reality, the Guapinol eight were detained for protesting against an iron oxide mining project by the ILP inside the Carlos Escaleras National Park, a protected area. The mining activities were polluting the Guapinol and San Pedro rivers, which thousands relied upon.

The Guapinol case

In 2011, the Honduran Congress declared the Botaderos mountain a national park, mandating protection of water sources, including the Guapinol river. In 2012, the Congress reduced the national park’s no-development zone to accommodate an open-pit mine project, owned by one of the country’s most powerful business families, who had ties of Honduran politicians. The government sanctioned the project without consulting with communities residing in the area.

In September 2018, after filing various legal complaints requesting that officials protect the rivers against pollution, the members of the Municipal Committee for the Defense of Common and Public Goods of Tocoa set up a peaceful protest camp near the mine, in rejection of the concessions to ILP and the resultant environmental devastation.

In response, the neoliberal and pro-business government of former President Juan Orlando Hernández brutally repressed the protesters and violently evicted the encampment. At least one young protester was seriously injured by a gunshot wound, while many suffered other injuries. In the following days, dozens of arrest warrants were issued against protesters.

The Prosecutor’s Office accused protesters of setting fire to several containers belonging to the ILP and illegally holding the company’s private security head in a clash with security forces. Environmental and human rights organizations claimed the arrests were arbitrary and intended to suppress protests against the mine.

On February 9, the Trujillo Court in the Colón department, with two votes in favor and one against, determined that environmentalists José Daniel Márquez, José Abelino Cedillo, Ewer Alexander Cedillo, Kelvin Alejandro Romero, Orbin Nahún Hernández, and Profirio Sorto Cedillo, were guilty of criminal damage to the company’s property and illegal detention of the company’s security chief. Meanwhile, the court acquitted Arnol Javier Alemán and Jeremías Martínez Díaz on the same charges. The sentencing hearing was scheduled for February 21. The activists faced up to 14 years in prison.

Widespread condemnation of activists’ conviction

The conviction of six activists received widespread national and international criticism. The Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH) condemned the decision, stating, “Justices Ricardo Rodriguez Barahona, Henry Geovanny Duarte Zaldívar and Franklin Marvin Araliz Santos have shown their collusion with the ‘Los Pinares’ company of Mr. Lenir Pérez, one of the largest businessmen and impoverishers in Honduras, by unjustly and illegally convicting six of the eight defenders of the Guapinol and San Pedro rivers.”

COPINH added: “This judgment without evidence reaffirms that this court, the prosecution that promotes the process, have colluded with the interests represented by Mr. Lenir Pérez, who is part of a structure that has been promoting the persecution and criminalization of comrades who defend the San Pedro and Guapinol rivers for years, in order to forcibly implement a project that was granted a concession in an irregular manner.”

COPINH demanded that “the mining concession granted to Lenir Pérez’s company be canceled and the company be closed; the false witnesses paid by the company be immediately prosecuted; and the judges of the sentencing court be investigated for acts of corruption and malfeasance.”

Amnesty International, which recognizes the Guapinol environmentalists as prisoners of conscience, described the verdict as “outrageous.”

Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas director at Amnesty International, stated, “The defenders are victims of arbitrary detention and unfounded criminal prosecution, stemming solely from their legitimate work defending the right to water and a healthy environment in Honduras.” She added, “The Honduran authorities must stop using the justice system to criminalize, intimidate and harass human rights defenders.”

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Honduras (OHCHR) also expressed its “deep concern” over the verdict.

“The Guapinol defenders are defenders of human rights, land, territory and the environment, who carry out commendable work in favor of democracy in the country,” said Isabel Albaladejo Escribano, OHCHR representative in Honduras. She emphasized that, “[the defenders] have served more than 29 months of arbitrary deprivation of liberty and, as determined by the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, their release and full reparations are due.”

In a statement, OHCHR stated that the office had followed the trial closely, adding, “The actions of the Public Ministry were not governed by the principle of objectivity and failed to comply with the minimum standard of proof that would prove guilt of the defenders.”

Upon learning of the Supreme Court’s ruling, OHCHR issued a small statement, welcoming “the [legal] remedies granted by the Constitutional Chamber in favor of Guapinol’s defenders,” and urging “the authorities to ensure their prompt release.”

Upon their release, OHCHR called on the State to “provide comprehensive reparation and carry out an exhaustive investigation of the facts that gave rise to the arbitrary deprivation of their liberty.” The Office also urged the State to “guarantee the safety of the defenders, their families and the organizations that accompany them in their defense of the land, territories and environment.”

How dangerous is it to be an environmentalist in Honduras?

Honduras is considered one of the most dangerous countries in the world for environmental activists and land defenders. The 2009 US-backed coup d’état against the progressive government of president Manuel Zelaya ushered in the conservative and neoliberal government of the National Party, after which corporations began stripping the country of its natural wealth. Activists who stood up in defense of the environment and the Honduran people were either killed, harassed, and/or imprisoned on fabricated charges. According to Global Witness, between 2010 and 2017, more than 120 environmentalists and land defenders were killed.

The assassination of Indigenous land defender and co-founder of COPINH, Berta Cáceres, revealed how elites and extractive industry control the judicial system in Honduras, and are able to use the courts against their opponents. Cáceres was murdered in her home on March 2, 2016, after being subjected to threats, intimidation, criminalization, and acts of physical violence. She was at the forefront of the resistance to the construction of the hydroelectric project Agua Zarca on the Gualcarque river, which was being executed by the Desarrollos Energéticos S.A. (DESA) company. Her organization and her family fought a five and a half year-long battle to uncover the truth and bring those responsible to justice.

In the light of the Guapinol case, COPINH called on the new left-wing government of President Xiomara Castro “to declare the concessions given in the framework of the coup d’ètat, that violate social security and common interests, as fraud.”

Last week, Adelso Reyes, legislators of the ruling Libre Party, requested the National Congress to review the concessions approved to ILP. Reyes also urged the Legislative Branch to send an invitation to the Guapinol community to know better about the situation they live in, the mining exploitation and the contamination of the Guapinol river.