Freedom of Expression Under Attack in Central America: Four Cases From New AI Report

Out of  almost 300 cases of human rights abuses covered in Amnesty International’s new report, Transforming Pain into Hope:  Human Rights Defenders in Latin America, only four have resulted in the conviction of those responsible.

One of the main reasons why violators continue enjoy impunity is that they target precisely those individuals who expose their crimes.  The report therefore emphasizes the danger posed to journalists, bloggers, and trade unionists who speak up for human rights.

Just within the relatively small region of Central America, the report highlights four important cases of attacks on freedom of expression that seek to cover up other human rights abuses: SEE THE REST OF THIS POST

Justice Denied for 30 Years: Six Reasons Guatemala Must Bring Rios Montt to Justice!

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As our families come together for Thanksgiving, please remember of the countless Guatemalans who have never learned the truth about what happened to their loved ones.

November 2012 marks the 30th anniversary of General Efrain Rios Montt launching the bloodiest period of Guatemala’s civil war after seizing power in a coup.  The victims and their families are still waiting for justice.  Thankfully, some of them are finally getting their day in court as Rios Montt stands accused in the Dos Erres Massacre of 1982.

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Faxes Jammed! Guatemalan Government Responds to Our Actions for Norma Cruz

Norma Cruz

Norma Cruz

Earlier this week, we started an exciting new faxjam action – calling on our members and Facebook and Twitter supporters around the world to send a fax to the Attorney General of Guatemala on behalf of human rights defender Norma Cruz.

Last night we spoke to Norma, the leader of the women’s rights organization Fundación Sobrevivientes, who has received repeated death threats because of her work supporting victims of violence against women and calling for those responsible to be prosecuted.

And the news is good – the authorities are really taking notice.

Norma told us that on Tuesday (the day after we started jamming faxes), the Presidential Commission on Human Rights phoned her to check on her security situation. They said that they were checking because they had heard about the Amnesty International campaign – the campaign that you have all been a part of.

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Stop the Death Threats. Defend Norma Cruz.

Norma Cruz

Guatemalan human rights defender Norma Cruz is the director of Fundación Sobrevivientes (c) Amnesty International

Norma Cruz is a Guatemalan human rights defender who has been repeatedly threatened with death because of her work documenting cases of violence against women and fighting for justice. Some of her relatives have even suffered threats and attacks because of her work.

It’s time someone defended Norma.  Through our new Faxjam campaign you can help stand up for Norma and other activists in Guatemala who face constant danger.

Norma Cruz leads an organization called ‘Survivors Foundation’ in Guatemala City that documents violence against women, including the thousands of rapes and killings of women.  Most of the threats that Norma has received have been related to their legal assistance in the case of a girl who was raped in 2004.

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Through Her Work Protecting Victims, One Woman Has Become a Target of Attack Herself

This post is part of our Write for Rights series.

Norma CrizNorma Cruz has been speaking out against domestic violence in Guatemala for many years.  She is the leader of Fundación Sobrevivientes (Survivors’ Foundation), an organization that works to document cases of domestic violence and bring perpetrators to justice.  Because of her work, Norma has received numerous death threats and her life is now in grave danger.

Norma began receiving death treats in 2009. These threats have been text messages to her private phone, and voicemails have been left on her home and office phones. One caller stated: “I want you to drop the case of [man's name], you’ve got eight days to drop the case, otherwise you’ll be in serious trouble, I will give you the head of your daughter or son, you bitch.” Threats like this have also been made to her family and colleagues. These messages began appearing after Fundación Sobrevivientes provided legal assistance to a girl who was raped. In fact, relatives of the same girl have been killed for the support they gave her. Norma has been warned of similar consequences if she does not discontinue her organization’s support of the case.

Since 2009, only one man has been charged with threatening Norma’s life. He has since been released on bail.  To date, the Public Prosecutor’s Office has not reported any further progress on the investigation into the remaining death threats.  No one else has been held accountable. While Guatemalan authorities have provided Norma Cruz, her family and her office with police protection, the threats continue.

Norma Cruz is not the only human right’s defender in Guatemala to be receiving death threats.  In fact, many human rights defenders, trade unionists and grassroots political and social activists are in similar circumstances. Like Norma, their cases are not seriously investigated by Public Prosecutor’s Office. In addition, most do not receive any protection from the state. You can help protect activists like Norma and bolster the rule of law by joining AIUSA’s Global Write-a-thon and pressing governments to do the right thing.

Elizabeth Stitt, Campaign for Individuals at Risk, contributed to this post.

Pass IVAWA: "no time to waste"

Yesterday, members of Congress and human rights advocates, including Amnesty’s celebrity spokesperson Samantha Mathis, made the case for passing the International Violence Against Women Act (IVAWA) on Capitol Hill.  At the breakfast briefing in the Rayburn House Office Building, the audience listened to a distinguished panel present compelling accounts of the heroism and bravery of women and girls globally. The briefing, titled “Stories of Courage and Success: Surviving and Ending Violence Against Women and Girls Internationally,” was infused with the possibility of overcoming gender based violence around the world.

The panel was joined by members of Congress who are IVAWA champions in the House, Representatives Ted Poe (R-TX) and Jan Schakowsky (D-IL).  Both members, who coordinated the event along with lead bill sponsor Representative Bill Delahunt (D-MA), made inspiring remarks on why they personally endorse and support the legislation.

One of the panelists, Rose Mapendo, a survivor and advocate from the Democratic Republic of Congo, gave some of the most gripping testimony. She began by sharing a song she had gained strength from when she was imprisoned with her family in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Rose detailed how she escaped with nine of her 10 children and eventually resettled in Arizona. She was finally reunited with her lost daughter more than a decade later. Ms. Mapendo has survived the violence of genocide and is helping to bring peace to her country and others. She is the subject of a new documentary by PBS called “Pushing the Elephant.”

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Secretary Clinton: when you go to Guatemala, will you put human rights at the top of your agenda?

Extrajudicial killings in Guatemala

I hope that during US Secretary of State Clinton’s March 4th visit to Guatemala, the grave human rights situation, specifically the extra-judicial killings coupled with the cloud of impunity surrounding those killings, are at the top of the agenda.  Secretary Clinton will be taking a quick trip thorough South and Central America, and her trip will be concluding in Guatemala, where she will be meeting with Guatemalan President Colom and a few other Central American leaders.

Over the past several years, various Guatemalan human rights organizations have received numerous reports of kidnappings and murders where police officers, off duty officers, hired security, or members of the armed forces are the suspected perpetrators. In many instances, officers act under direct order, complicity, or the acquiescence of Guatemalan authorities. Frequently, young men from marginalized sectors of society who have criminal records are the victims, and potential witnesses refuse to testify for fear of retribution.

It is important to note here too, that not just young men are targets; members of indigenous communities, women, and human rights activists are also at risk. Amnesty International has a current urgent action calling for the protection of the activists of civil society group, FRENA, the Resistance Front for the Defense of Natural Resources and People’s Rights (or in Spanish Frente de Resistencia en Defensa de los Recursos Naturales y Derechos de los Pueblos) three members of which have been the victims of extrajudicial killings. Currently there are no suspects.  A recent press release issued by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights urges the necessity for “the Guatemalan State to maximize its efforts to investigate and legally clarify these crimes and to prosecute the perpetrators and masterminds”.

In 2007, the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial killings visited Guatemala and published a report which noted that:

“…There is strong evidence that some acts of social cleansing—executions of gang members, criminal suspects, and other ‘undesirables’ –are committed by police personnel”. 

The report found that of Guatemala’s 5,000 annual homicides, 1.4% of those cases end in a conviction. In the same 2007 report, the Rapporteur called for the “categorical rejection” by the government of the practice of extrajudicial killings and the expansion of the criminal justice system to effectively investigate murders. SEE THE REST OF THIS POST

Justice for Guatemala's Disappeared?

Yesterday, The Washington Post published an article highlighting the opening of Guatemala’s police archives. The archives — which contain documentation of Guatemala’s internal armed conflict that killed approximately 200,000 people – could provide long awaited justice to families who never got answers about disappearances and murders of their loved ones.

The article continues with a comment from Amnesty International: “I don’t think anyone truly believed this day would come,” said Barbara Bocek, the Guatemala country specialist for Amnesty International USA. “It’s an incredible achievement, especially for Guatemala. In other countries these records would be buried underground, shredded, destroyed.”

However, AI has expressed concern about intimidation of the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office, the agency credited with discovering the warehouse of documents: “The wife of the Director of the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office was kidnapped on Wednesday and tortured. One official was beaten up, whilst a number of threats have been made against other officials of the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office. These include a bomb threat and a threat against the life of the Director of the Office. ”

WIth such an incredible opportunity in Guatemala comes the familiar forces of intimidation and secrecy. Do you think the opening of Guatemala’s police archives will bring long awaited justice to the families of the disappeared?

 

Battling Impunity in Guatemala

Member of staff at the FAFG studying human remains in order to identify them, 12 June 2008. © Private

Member of staff at the FAFG studying human remains in order to identify them, 12 June 2008. © Private

Excavating human remains, using forensic techniques to identify them, hoping the evidence will help bring the killers to justice–it may sound fascinating and even glamorous to some, but this is no “CSI Miami”. These investigators have been threatened, followed, watched, and shot at on many occasions because of their work to combat impunity. The Guatemalan Foundation of Forensic Anthropology (Fundación Guatemalteca de Antropología Forense – FAFG) carries out forensic investigations and exhumations of mass graves dating from the time of Guatemala’s internal armed conflict (1960-1996). The uncovering of mass graves and the identification of human remains is a key contribution to the pursuit of truth, justice and reparation for the relatives of the dead and disappeared and the survivors of the armed conflict, most of whom are indigenous people.

Despite hard work by organizations like the FAFG, and high-profile individuals like Nobel laureate Rigoberta Menchú, violations against human rights defenders in Guatemala are widespread and show no signs of improvement. Many defenders have received so many threats and acts of intimidation that they have stopped or radically curtailed their important work. You can lend your support and encouragement to the FAFG by taking part in this year’s Holiday Card Action, in which people send cards with messages of solidarity and hope to human rights defenders, prisoners of conscience and others who may fear they’ve been forgotten by the world.