Nina Lakhani // The Guardian News
The Honduran supreme court has ordered the release of six anti-mining protesters, ruling that they should never have been put on trial.
The environmentalists, who have been held on remand for two and half years for trying to protect a river in a national park, faced up to 14 years in prison after being convicted on Wednesday of criminal damage and illegal detention. Two others were absolved of the same charges.
Wednesday’s verdict, which cemented Honduras’ ranking as the most dangerous country in the world for environmentalists and land rights defenders, was condemned as “appalling” by the UN special rapporteur for human rights defenders.
Amnesty International described the verdict as “outrageous” and said the Guapinol activists were prisoners of conscience.
But in a dramatic move, the supreme court accepted an appeal filed months earlier that challenged the constitutionality of the charges and the refusal to grant bail.
The court found that the case should never have gone to trial because the judge who sanctioned the indictment against the defenders – and later ordered pre-trial detention – was not authorised to do so. The charges must be annulled and the men freed, as the judge violated due process by presiding on cases outside her jurisdiction.
The eight men, from a poor, semi-rural community called Guapinol, have been held in an overcrowded prison throughout the pandemic as a result of bail being denied – yet the conditions requiring pre-trial detention were never met, according to Thursday’s supreme court decision.
“The rulings confirm that the case should never have proceeded and that the pre-trial detention was illegal,” said defence lawyer Edy Tabora. “The Guapinol defenders were arbitrarily detained.”
The case stems from a huge open-pit mine in Tocoa, owned by one of the country’s most powerful couples, which was sanctioned inside a protected national park without community consultation in a process mired by irregularities, according to international experts.
The Guapinol community set up a peaceful protest camp after the mine polluted rivers relied upon by thousands of people. Security forces violently evicted the encampment and dozens of arrest warrants were issued against the protesters.
International legal and human rights experts widely condemned the criminalization of the activists and the subsequent militarization of the community, which has forced several people to flee and seek asylum in the US.
After a trial mired my delays, irregularities and accusations of judicial bias and falsified evidence, the criminal court ruled on Wednesday that José Márquez, Kelvin Romero Martínez, José Abelino Cedillo, Porfirio Sorto Cedillo, Orbín Nahúm Hernández, and Ewer Alexander Cedillo Cruz were guilty of criminal damage of the mining company’s property and illegal detention of its private security chief.
Arnold Alemán and Jeremías Martínez were absolved of the same charges and allowed to return home.
As a result of the supreme court rulings, defence lawyers will today petition the court to immediately release the six imprisoned men.
Juana Zuniga, partner of José Albino Cedillo, who was among the six found guilty, said: “We the families are in shock, but full of joy. We hope that our companions will be freed as soon as possible and allowed to return home as the defenders that they are and have always been.
“Our struggle will continue until the national park is free from mining and environmental destruction.”
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