Butterflies fly over smiling water defenders

An important victory for water defenders in Honduras

After 914 days behind bars, accused of crimes they did not commit, eight community leaders known as the Guapinol River defenders have been set free.

“We are so happy. Actually, we are euphoric! We have won at last!” said Orbin Hernández, a teacher and leader of the Municipal Committee for the Defence of Common and Public Assets in the northern Honduran municipality of Tocoa. “It is thanks to support from inside and outside Honduras that we are now free from criminal persecution by the justice system and the oligarchy behind it.”

“My heart is overflowing with joy,” added Daniel Márquez, a farmer and member of the Guapinol Water Board. “We are very thankful to the national and international organizations who always believed in our innocence.”

During their unjust detention, Amnesty International issued multiple Urgent Actions mobilizing supporters to write letters calling for the release of the defenders.

Amnesty publicly declared that the eight were prisoners of conscience, jailed in retaliation for their involvement in peaceful efforts to protect their community’s source of water from contamination by a controversial mine operation owned by one of the most powerful couples in Honduras.

Top court overturns unjust verdict

On February 9, following a trial plagued with illegalities, a sentencing court in Trujillo found six of the eight Guapinol River defenders guilty of crimes against Inversiones Los Pinares, the company operating the iron-ore mine and processing concession in a formerly protected national park, crimes punishable with up to 14 years in jail.

The verdict provoked widespread indignation. The UN special rapporteur on human rights defenders, Mary Lawlor, said she was “appalled”. Amnesty International called the verdict “outrageous” and urged that it be quashed. “The defenders are victims of arbitrary detention and unfounded criminal prosecution, stemming solely from their legitimate work defending the right to water and a healthy environment,” said Amnesty’s Americas director Erika Guevara-Rosas. Concluded defence lawyer Edy Tabora: “The prosecutors failed to provide any evidence of a crime …This is a political verdict that demonstrates the power of economic elites in this country.”

But outrage turned to jubilation on February 10. The Supreme Court finally responded to an appeal submitted two years earlier, and ruled that the Guapinol River defenders should never have spent one day in jail. On February 24, all eight defenders were free at last and reunited with their families.

The struggle for water continues

The Guapinol River defenders have inspired many with their David and Goliath struggle against a mining operation and its powerful backers, who voted to rezone a protected area, provided permits and misused the justice system to lock up opponents.

Just hours after regaining their freedom, the Guapinol River defenders were undeterred and pledged to renew their campaign.

“Our struggle continues, said Daniel Márquez: “We invite others to join us.”  

“We are protecting the right to water, the right to life,” added Orbin Hernández.

This blog was prepared by Amnesty Canada’s Latin America campaigner Kathy Price.

For more information, email kprice@amnesty.ca