The workings of a modern-day democracy depend on the open and orderly day-to-day functions of institutions based on law. The international community has unanimously agreed that this does not exist in Honduras. But few people outside Honduras really understand what it means to live in a society where the institutions are in the hands of the same people who broke with the rule of law.
The week of Aug. 17-24, I accompanied an international delegation for Women’s Human Rights Week in Tegucigalpa and got a chance to see firsthand the morass of contradictions that arise when institutions made to uphold the law and protect human right are run by leaders of an illegal military coup.
Impunity for Some, Persecution for Others
Tuesday was the preliminary hearing for 24 people arrested during the protests held Aug 11-12. We headed to the Supreme Court to wait for the outcome of the hearing and talk to family members and legal advisors. Friends and relatives were concerned that the coup regime will use the case of their loved ones to send a hard-line message to the resistance movement.
The press and statements from those released on bail has confirmed that the day security forces picked up these prisoners they took them to an illegal detention center. Not even a legal holding facility, the center was improvised behind the Congress building where, in another farce of justice, members rubber-stamped the ouster of the elected president Manuel Zelaya with ad hoc charges and a falsified letter of resignation.
Men and women of all ages were thrown in together and beaten. They were stripped semi-naked, laid face down on the floor, and in many cases beaten. Women prisoners reported being struck repeatedly on the breasts and buttocks.
But none of this was on trial, nor will it ever be under the coup regime. Despite public and documented accusations of abuse in custody, no charges have been filed or investigations opened against the security forces. Instead, the 24 men and women going before the judge have to answer to a slew of charges including robbery, vandalism, arson and sedition.
Some prisoners were released on bail, others were held over the week awaiting arraignment. I watch as the prisoners are removed from the paddy wagon in handcuffs. The fear and humiliation of the treatment they’ve received at the hands of authorities shows as they file by with lowered heads, prodded by heavily armed police. Relatives and friends gathered for the hearing and to catch a glimpse of loved ones, cry out in indignation. Tempers run high. “Look at how they’re being treated like common criminals,” yells one man. “These sons-of-a-bitches of the de facto regime have disgraced our country.”
Raquel Hernandez´s 18-year-old son, Alan Samuel Cruz, is among the group rounded up that day and now standing trial.
Hernandez relates, “I got a call and he said, ‘Mama, I’m in the Cobras (among the most feared security forces) headquarters… There are about 24 of us here, some are badly beaten, I think one has a broken clavicle…’ I got a lawyer friend and went and sat down there and I told them ‘I know that my son is here, I’m 100% sure because I talked to him, and I’m not leaving until I see my son.’ They wouldn’t tell me anything.”
Hernández continues, in tears. “Later he told me, ‘Mama, I was taking photos and a soldier grabbed me in the march, but I wasn’t doing anything wrong…’ He’s just a university student. When I heard this it gave me chills, a sense of impotence with this government. They stripped my son, they took off his shirt and his socks and threw him face down in the Congress and from there they took them in a closed convoy so the prisoners couldn’t see where they were going.”
“Where my son was, was where the Battalion 3-16 operated in the 80s, where they executed people… I thought that my son would be ‘disappeared.’ They are taking innocent people, they’re not delinquents. Its innocent people, poor people that are in the streets because of this de facto government, they’re just fighting to reestablish the government and they are arrested and accused of charges that are unjust... It’s repression… We want justice… The police are the aggressive ones, they carry baseball bats and tubes… We can’t take it anymore, this government lies and we can’t even demonstrate because we’re attacked.”
Another man tells me the story of his 56-year old father Lisandro Gomez, who was picked up the same day. “The police are acting like henchmen. They don’t care about sex or age… They grabbed them without even telling them what they were charged with. They laid them on the ground in the blazing heat for an hour and those who lifted up their heads got clubbed or threatened with a gun. My father got hit four times, one in the back, one in the leg. It was light for him, but considering his age… One woman was brutally beaten and thrown on top of the men with no shirt. My father said she fell on top of him… They’re accused of robbery but no-one was found with anything stolen on them.”
After talking to the relatives, I go inside the court building where the hearing is being held. This is not a normal trial. Armed police officers refused admittance to the lower court where the preliminary hearing is being held. The court is militarized—in the hallway outside the salon, four soldiers in camouflage surreptitiously snap photos of family members and supporters as more soldiers fill the courtroom as an ominous reminder that institutions in the hands of the armed forces have lost all semblance of real institutionality or justice.
Two days later, the judge released the prisoners with restraining measures against six of the group. It was a victory for the movement, but a hollow one. The scene at the courtroom revealed that justice cannot function normally under the coup’s military-backed regime. At a press conference a few days later, Police Commissioner Danilo Orellana announced that arrest orders would be issued for protestors who painted walls and extended to movement leaders for “instigation” simply for organizing a march.
Persecution of leaders and members of the non-violent resistance for “property damage” while leaving the coup’s crimes of murder, rape and beating in complete impunity exposes the underlying lack of justice in Honduras today. The movement is put in the complicated position of defending its political prisoners in court while at the same time denouncing the underlying hypocrisy and lack of impartiality of the court system under the coup.