Honduras must stop criminalising defence of indigenous rights, say UN experts


GENEVA (9July 2021)  ̶  UN experts* today called on Honduras to stop arbitrarily detaining and criminalising human rights defenders of the Garifuna indigenous communities.

The Garifuna, who number about 300,000 in Honduras, are an ethnic group of mixed African and indigenous heritage. In 2015 the Inter-American Court of Human Rights recognised the violation of human rights of the Garifuna communities and ordered a set of reparations, including the delimitation, demarcation and titling of traditional lands, but Honduras has not yet implemented those measures.

Mary Lawlor, UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, spoke out after the arrest of Marianela Mejía Solórzano, Jennifer Sarina Mejía Solórzano and Silvia Bonilla, defenders of the territory and rights of the Garifuna people, and members of the Black Fraternal Organisation of Honduras (OFRANEH).

The Public Prosecutor´s Office has accused the defenders of robbery with violence or intimidation, usurpation, damage and threats. According to the information received, the investigations arise from the conflict related to the possession, use and owenership of certain lands for which there are both private property titles and an ancestral property title in favour of the community of Cristales and Río Negro.

Jennifer Sarina Mejía Solórzano was arrested on 3 March this year, and when Marianela Mejía Solórzano went to the police station to get information about her sister’s detention, she was arrested on the same charges. They both could face 10 years in prison if convicted. On 7 March 2021, the two sisters were formally indicted and remanded in custody under precautionary measures. Silvia Bonilla was arrested on 16 June 2021, and on 2 July 2021 she was provisionally acquitted of all charges. In the context of these arrests, 29 arrest warrants are pending against defenders of the Garifuna indigenous communities.

“The timing of the sisters’ arrest is disturbing,” Lawlor said. “They were arrested just one day before a hearing on the Honduran Government’s failure to comply with the judgements of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights to guarantee the Garifuna peoples use and enjoyment of their traditional lands.”

Lawlor and other human rights experts told the Honduran government of their concern that the sisters’ arrest comes against a backdrop of “violence, attacks and persecution against civil society organisations, indigenous communities and women in Honduras,” issues the experts have previously raised with the government.

“Honduras must stop misusing criminal law to persecute human rights defenders and to stigmatise the Garifuna community,” Lawlor said. “These three brave defenders are being persecuted for the work they are carrying out to defend human rights among the Garifuna people and now they face long term detentions.”

Francisco Cali Tzay, Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, agreed that “five years after the assassination of Berta Cáceres, Garifuna communities and those engaged in defending their rights continue to face violence, attacks and persecution.”

The Rapporteurs urge the authorities to provide effective protection for all human rights defenders in Honduras, especially those who continue to fight for indigenous, women’s and environmental rights.

The Rapporteurs are in contact with the Honduran authorities on this issue.

The experts’ call was endorsed by: Working Group on discrimination against women and girls: Ms. Melissa Upreti (Chair), Ms. Dorothy Estrada-Tanck (Vice Chair), Ms. Elizabeth Broderick, Ms. Ivana Radačić, and Ms. Meskerem Geset Techane;and the Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences: Ms. Dubravka Simonovic.

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