Stop treating indigenous human rights defenders like criminals – UN experts: Guatemala

OHCHR

UN rights experts* have expressed concerns over the criminalisation, violations of due process and health rights of an indigenous human rights defender in Guatemala.

“Mr. Bernardo Caal Xól has been criminalised because he, on behalf of his community, took a case all the way to the Supreme Court to try to halt the Oxec hydroelectric project,” the experts said. “Sadly, this is not an isolated case; too often in Guatemala those who defend land and the environment are considered criminals.”

Bernardo Caal Xól is a leader of the peaceful resistance of Cahabón, a collective of 38 Maya Q’eqchi’ communities in the northern department of Alta Verapaz in northern Guatemala. In 2015, he organised peaceful opposition to the Oxec hydroelectric project, which the communities said endangered their sacred Cahabón River.

In retaliation, smear campaigns were launched in newspapers, on television and social media to discredit his work and to portray human rights defenders in a negative light, the experts said.

In November 2018, he was sentenced to seven years and four months in prison despite a lack of evidence against him and irregularities in the prosecution, the experts said. Bernardo’s lawyers immediately filed an appeal following his conviction – however the hearings have been cancelled or suspended on numerous occasions, including due the decision of 69 judges from the appeals chamber to refrain from hearing the case.

Mr. Caal Xól has filed an appeal before the Supreme Court to present his arguments, including three amicus curiae briefs, which was finally heard on 21 June after many delays. A ruling was expected in 15 days but it has yet to be issued.

“We remain deeply concerned about long periods of pre-trial detention and the repeated suspension of hearings, which prolongs trials,” the experts said. “We urge Mr. Caal Xól to be given a fair trial by a competent, independent and impartial tribunal without further delay,” they said.

The experts also expressed concerns that Mr. Caal Xól’s health has deteriorated since he was imprisoned in 2018. Cobán Prison, where he is held, is overcrowded, and has poor infrastructure, food and health services, the experts said. These bad conditions have become even worse during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The Government of Guatemala should take immediate and effective measures to protect the health and safety of Mr. Caal Xól while he is incarcerated,” the experts said, “and to guarantee his personal, physical and mental integrity, especially during the pandemic.”

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