Six water defenders are still in jail in Olanchito prison, in the Yoro department of Honduras, despite the recent ratification by the Supreme Court of Justice of an appeal for their release, submitted on 10 February 2022. They have been in pre-trial detention for 30 months, with no legal grounds.
On 9 February, the defenders were condemned by the Trujillo Sentencing Court, accused of “aggravated arson and unlawful confinement” by mining company Inversiones Los Pinares. This was in spite of the human rights campaign calling for their immediate release, which included a demand from the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention.
In light of the widespread outcry about the prosecution of the six defenders, including strong condemnation from the Human Rights Secretariat of Xiomara Castro’s government, the Supreme Court of Justice made their decision to ratify the appeal public on 10 February. Yet, lack of action by the Trujillo judges has meant further delays to the release of the Guapinol defenders, although it was reported internationally that they had already been released.
The Guapinol conflict started over an illegal mining concession, which was granted to the Inversiones Los Pinares company at the Carlos Escaleras National Park in Honduras’ Bajo Aguan region. The concession was granted in January 2014 by the Municipal Corporation of Tocoa. Earlier in 2012, the EMCO company (later renamed Los Pinares) already benefitted from a Decree that reduced the size of the protected area of Carlos Escaleras National Park, allowing them to develop an extractivist project there.
The Municipal Committee for the Defence of Common and Public Resources of Tocoa was created in 2015, to bring together local organisations that defend water and the Botaderos mountain in Bajo Aguan against mining and other exploitative corporate projects. In August 2018, the population of Guapinol and neighbouring areas set up a campsite in the community to show their opposition to the project, which would endanger water sources in the area. A month later, Los Pinares filed a criminal complaint against the community, which would result in the arrest and detention of the Guapinol defenders since 2019.
Awaiting their release in 2022, Real World Radio interviewed Juana Zúniga, leader of the Guapinol Environmental Committee and partner of José Abelino Cedillo, one of the six water defenders who are still imprisoned.
- What has been your experience these past weeks awaiting the release of the Guapinol defenders?
-There are two appeals: one for a change in measures and another for their release. The Supreme Court of Justice said that the defenders would not be prosecuted. So we have been waiting for seven days for this communication to reach the Trujillo Sentencing Court so that the judges can sign the release letters. There is no evidence to keep them in jail, but the Court is trying to prolong their imprisonment.
- The campaign to demand the release of the Guapinol defenders started with eight people in jail and now there are six. Why were only two defenders released, and not all of them?
-So far, the Sentencing Tribunal has not provided a reason to explain their decision to release only two, despite all being accused of the same crimes. Our legal representatives have already proven that none of them participated in the crimes the Public Prosecution is claiming.
- Even though the Human Rights Secretariat rejected to the conviction, have you received any other type of support or communication from Xiomara Castro’s government?
-We met with Xiomara Castro’s secretary to express our concerns about the fact that our comrades had not been released yet.
Zúniga said that the Executive Branch of the government will decorate the defenders inside the prison facilities on Wednesday 23 February.
-We are worried about this, because it shouldn’t happen there. They should be released, return home, and the projects in the National Park should be abandoned.
- How are the defenders doing these days? What is the situation in the community, where you have also received threats and harassment?
-They are in good spirits and hope to be released in the next few days. They have not lost hope that they will be released under this new administration. As a community, we want to regain our joy and freedom, so that we can keep fighting to defend the river and mountains of Guapinol. At the moment, all we have is fear. The imprisonment of our comrades has really affected the community.
Last year I personally received threats from the police. On Monday, unidentified people shot at us as we travelled to the court.
We are up against corporations, and feel the constant thread of repression, imprisonment, even murder, like what happened to our comrade Berta Cáceres. But we can’t abandon our community. We have children and we are keeping up this fight, so that they can have a roof over their heads, and a better place to live.