Montaña Verde: Indigenous Rights, Land, Repression
Over the past 15 years, well over 50 indigenous activists have been assassinated in Honduras. Although the country signed the ILO's Covenant 169, indigenous rights only really exist on paper. Those who struggle for their rights to territory, natural resource management, identity and autonomy are often met with discrimination, repression or bullets.
One example of this repression is the systematic targeting of members of the Indigenous Communal Council of Montaña Verde, affiliated with the Civic Council for Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras COPINH. Council members and other community authorities have been charged with murder, assault and battery, theft, property damage, 'grand cattle theft,' attempt against the State and threats, as a result of their persistent struggle to obtain communal land titles to community land.
Although all previous cases had been won due to lack of evidence, this complete lack of evidence is no longer hindering the corrupt judicial system from emitting guilty verdicts. Marcelino and Leonardo Miranda, in jail since their arrest and torture in early 2003, have been sentenced to 29 years each on the fabricated charges of murder and assault, amidst the appalling and almost surreal abusive actions and irregularities plaguing the judicial system.
The Miranda brothers are both respected community leaders and are involved in the community church as 'Delegates of the Word of God.' Marcelino is the Coordinator of Legal Issues of the Indigenous Communal Council and has previously been elected to the General Coordination of COPINH as Coordinator of Land and the Environment. They continue to support the struggle of their community and of COPINH for land and justice, to the extent that this is possible, given their current situation. Community members work collectively to plant and harvest the brothers' land to support their families, whom Marcelino and Leonardo have been unable to support for over a year.
Background: Repression and Resistance in Montaña Verde
Poised in the green mountains in a remote region of western Honduras, the neighbouring communities of Planes and Vertientes, collectively Montana Verde, have been the home for generations of campesino families, descendants of the indigenous Lenca. Without a recognized legal title to the land, they have been subject to repeated intimidation and encroachments onto their land, which overlaps with the Montana Verde wildlife refuge decreed in 1987: seasonal cattle grazing guarded by armed ranchers, a sawmill, armed incursions, etc.
Behind these tactics are powerful landowning families based out of Gracias, the centre of the municipality covering Montana Verde, in particular the Calix Urtecho family. Between the army captain, the police chief and the congressman, this family has certainly had the opportunity and support to attempt to usurp the land and valuable natural resources of Montana Verde.
The communities' affiliation with COPINH and their long struggle for a communal land title only led to intensified repression. Over the last few years this repression has manifested itself as a series of fabricated charges and legal processes against various Communal Indigenous Council representatives and other community leaders. Indigenous council leaders from Vertientes, Felipe Bejerano and Luis Benitez, were jailed -- 27 and 14 months, respectively -- for the duration of their trials on the trumped charges of theft and property damage. When the community of Vertientes finally succeeded in obtaining a communal land title to the community's land, police and justice system authorities began targeting community leaders from Planes, the community still fighting for its land title.
Marcelino and Leonardo Miranda were arrested on January 8, 2003, in a military-style midnight attack on their community and were tortured -- severely beaten, burned with cigarettes, forced to carry heavy loads hung by the neck, and partially asphyxiated by repeated submersion underwater -- by many of 28 police and special forces agents involved. They have faced charges of assault, murder, land usurpation, grand cattle theft and attempt against the State. They have been held in prison, where they were tortured once again by two special 'Cobra' agents involved in the January operative. As the trials unfolded, they have been cleared of all charges except for assault and murder.
The Sentence: Systematic Injustice Continues
Although Honduran law states that the sentence must be pronounced within 10 days of the acceptance of the conclusions into the case file, this timeframe is seldom respected. In this case, Judge Atiliano Vasquez waited until December 16, 2003 -- well over a month past the legally acceptable date -- to sentence the Miranda brothers to 25 years for murder. He then ignored his legal obligation to inform the defense lawyer Marcelino Martinez of the decision, only going so far as to post the sentence on the court notice board in the Gracias courthouse on December 17, the last working day for the justice system in Honduras until their return from the holidays on January 5th.
This latest event is typical of the actions of most of the judges and public prosecutors dealing with the wide array of false charges against Montana Verde indigenous leaders, in this case and all the preceding ones. Indeed, it has become very evident that most of these 'justice' workers are working in favour of the powerful landowners and the police. This pattern has become even more obvious throughout the course of the murder trial.
The judge apparently based his decision on the summary period testimony of two witnesses, which was disproved during the course of the proceedings. One of the two witnesses, Manuel de Jesus Benitez, contradicted his own testimony during the reconstruction of events, which was conducted at the site he indicated, 700m from the actual crime site. The prosecution did not propose the inclusion of any concrete or scientific proof linking the Miranda brothers to the dead body, because no such evidence exists. In fact, the initial denouncement of the death, made by a recognized community leader, lamented the crime but made no mention of Marcelino and Leonardo Miranda or any other suspects.
The ever-changing cast of judges and public prosecutors involved in the case has had their share of implication in the ongoing injustice. Public prosecutor Virgilio Carias witnessed the torture of Marcelino Miranda and has been a key witness for the police in other trials, as has Ivan Najera, an investigative agent who participated in the torture of Leonardo during and after his arrest. The latest public prosecutor put on the case at his request, Julio Cerrato, phoned the public prosecutor's office during the reconstruction of events on September 18th with the false information that Judge Vasquez and police officers had "disappeared". Upon confirmation by a police officer, a police helicopter was sent to Montana Verde and the news was quickly propagated on local and national radio.
The reconstruction of events in September was actually the second time the event was scheduled. A date and time had been programmed earlier; however, the judge and public prosecutor departed from Gracias and passed the arranged meeting point with the defense prior to the arranged time, continuing on to San Francisco de Opalaca, where the hike into the community would have begun. Instead, they wrote a legal act claiming to have arrived in the community of Vertientes, denounced the defense's absence and turned around. A similar episode occurred with the exhumation of the body of the deceased community member, when the forensic medical personnel failed to bring any tools to carry out the procedure, returning another day without notifying the defense.
The conviction, then, only follows an established pattern of repression and abuse. It is still appalling, however, considering the absolute lack of evidence against the accused, aside from the outsiders' testimonies that have been repeatedly disproved. Furthermore, the witnesses' testimony from the summary period, although the basis of the sentence, was never formally submitted as evidence. The witnesses were never recalled to give their testimony during the presentation of evidence, thus depriving the defense of its right to cross-examine.
Since the 25-year sentence, the Miranda brothers have been sentenced to 4 further years on assault and battery charges. Both decisions are at different stages of appeal process, as is the shelving of a case of torture and abuse of authority against the 28 police officers involved in the Miranda brothers' arrest and torture January 8, 2003. Judicial proceedings continue to be riddled with irregularities and abuses, while COPINH and the communities of Montaña Verde continue to struggle for land and justice.
For more information about the Montaña Verde case, how to get involved or to support the Miranda brothers, their families and defense costs, contact Rights Action.
This report was prepared by Sandra Cuffe, who works with Rights Action in Honduras.