Public Clarification of the Circumstances Surrounding the Abduction of Two Observers from PROAH in La Nueva Esperanza

We wish to express our deep concern about statements made by representatives of the state and others on the Honduran television programme Frente a Frente (Face to Face), on two occasions, 5 and 12 November 2013, about the kidnapping of two observers of the Honduras Accompaniment Project (PROAH) on 25 July 2013.

PROAH (the Project’s initials in Spanish) was established in Honduras in September 2010, in response to the deteriorating situation for human rights defenders following the 2009 coup. Its mandate is to provide international accompaniment to human rights defenders, including human rights and social movement organizations and individuals, who find themselves under threat or harassment due to their individual and collective human rights work. It is a project of the US NGO, Friendship Office of the Americas.

On 25 July 2013, Orlane Vidal and Daniel Langmeier, French and Swiss respectively, were visiting the community of La Nueva Esperanza in the municipality of Tela, which has suffered a campaign of intimidation for over a year for its peaceful opposition to a mining exploration concession granted by the State without its consent. Its persecutors include the police and men hired by the Minerales Victoria mining company. That day, the observers were held captive for two and a half hours by heavily armed men from the mining project. The incident was reported to the authorities and denounced publicly1 by the victims, and Amnesty International issued an urgent action providing details of the case.2

On 5 November, the kidnapping was the subject of public debate when the host of the programme Frente a Frente referred to the meeting that Bertha Oliva of COFADEH3 and Victor Fernandez of MADJ attended with members of the US Congress, where she mentioned the abduction of international observers. The show’s presenter and his guests insisted that they had not heard anything about the kidnapping, and on the basis of this and other points, accused Bertha Oliva of making unsubstantiated allegations. The programme provoked a strongly-worded complaint by Human Rights Watch4, which urged the government of Honduras to “publicly repudiate the … criticisms” and denounced the “smears” which put the country’s civil society leaders at risk.

The programme on 12 November gave the MADJ (Broad Movement for Dignity and Justice), an organization that supports the community of Nueva Esperanza, an opportunity for its three representatives, including Victor Fernandez, to respond to the accusations made on Frente a Frente the previous week, and to explain the community’s situation and the circumstances of the abduction. Two representatives of the state were also invited onto the programme – the Deputy Minister of Security and the Deputy Minister for Justice and Human Rights.

Although it was confirmed that the abduction had indeed occurred, instead of apologizing to Bertha Oliva for accusations made against her, the presenter sought to justify his apparent ignorance of the case by stating that he thought she was referring to election – rather than humans rights – observers.

We are extremely concerned about the statements made by Marcela Castañeda, Deputy Minister of Security, apparently based on police reports, which give an inaccurate account of the incident. The Minister publicly alleged that the international observers from PROAH were trespassing on private property (presumably the mining company’s) to take photos when they were abducted. She also alleged that they were taken in a car to the police station in Nueva Florida, and the police organized their secure return to Tegucigalpa, implying that the abduction was possibly justified, and underplaying the seriousness of the offence. These statements are totally incorrect. Moreover, both the Deputy Minister of Security, as well as Martha Sabillón, Deputy Minister for Justice and Human Rights, stated that the case still needed to be investigated. In fact:

– The investigations into the case are now so far advanced that the Public Prosecutor’s Office in La Ceiba has issued an arrest warrant for one of the kidnappers – who are also responsible for the persecution of the community. Unfortunately, to date, the warrant has not been implemented by the police.

– It was the kidnappers who trespassed on private property, not the observers. On 25 July 2013, the observers were accompanying the family of Concepción Gutiérrez, due to the threats it had received from workers from Minerales Victoria for refusing to sell its land to the mining company. Seven security guards, heavily armed, arrived at the family’s property, without its permission, threatening the two international observers with their guns. They were reinforced by between 25 and 30 men with machetes, workers at the mining exploration site. Such was the seriousness of the threats that the family fled the community the same day, after the abduction of the observers.

– The observers were forced by the armed men to get into their pick-up, and taken to the community of Nueva Florida.

– During the abduction, one of the kidnappers threatened to “disappear them in the woods” if the observers returned, and another warned that the community “would suffer reprisals” if they reported what had happened.

After being held captive for two and a half hours, the observers were left in La Nueva Florida at 11.30am. They waited there for an hour until a police patrol took them to Tela, as a result of the urgent efforts made ​​by COFADEH and other national human rights defenders.

During the forced and unauthorized entry onto private property by the armed men, and throughout the abduction, the local police failed to respond to the emergency calls made by members of the community, despite the fact that the day before, at the police station, both observers had informed its staff of their presence and their work in the community.

We welcome Martha Sabillón’s words of support for human rights defenders on the programme. However, we note with great concern the above statements about the kidnapping, which have the effect of discrediting the legitimate work of human rights defenders, both Honduran and international.

It should be stressed that, to date, there has been no action by the state to stop the harassment and persecution of the community of La Nueva Esperanza. The gunmen continue to terrorize the defenceless population daily.

For more information, please see the articles on La Nueva Esperanza in our blog from June to August 2013.

Committee of the Relatives of the Detained and Disappeared in Honduras.

Human Rights Watch Press Release (8.11.13) Honduras: Smears put activists at risk

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