PBI accompany human rights defenders in different parts of the world who push for social justice and respect for the rule of law. This work often implies considerable risk. PBI supports many defenders who have been crimianlised for the work they carry out, meaning the legal system is used against them in order to stop their resistance.
In Honduras, but also in Mexico and Guatemala, this trend has been particularly prevalent with regards to land, territory and environmental defenders. These attacks put those fighting for social justice at risk. If social justice is a global priority, we must ensure defenders are protected and can carry on their important work in the conditions they deserve.
The paralyzing effect of criminalization*
The misuse of criminal law to criminalise, paralyse and delegitimise the work of human rights defenders continues to be a systematic practice in Honduras, with emphasis on women defenders. Between 2013 and June 2018, 650 women defenders faced criminal prosecution, and a high percentage of these women were defenders of Economic, Social, Cultural and Ambiental Rights (ESCA). Moreover, according to a study by JASS , 68.6% of women belonging to ESCA rights organisations are affected by criminalisation.
The increase in criminalization in the last five years, both qualitatively and quantitatively, is also worrying. The types of crimes used to criminalise ESCA rights defenders, like usurpation, coercion and damages, have been amplified. For example, the crime of illicit association has also been used in various cases, for instance in the Guapinol case. Moreover, the definition of the crime of terrorist association (as well as other articles) in the New Criminal Code is of serious concern, since it might enable more criminalisation due to its ambiguous wording.
Six years with alternative measures*
The woman human rights defender Lilian Borjas, of the Regional Board of the National Centre for Fieldworkers (CNTC) in the Yoro department, is one of thousands of criminalised human rights defenders in the country. In March 2013, her smallholder group initiated a process of land recuperation, taking possession of 62 hectares. The National Agrarian Institute (INA) has confirmed that the lands are municipal property. Nevertheless, alleged owners have come forward claiming to possess a title to the land from the Institute of Property (IP).
During the months prior to the land recuperation, the smallholder group suffered various attacks, and was violently evicted by twelve armed individuals. The armed group arrived in the area, forced the families who were present into a line, threatened them with weapons and burned their belongings. On June 17, 2013, Lilian was arrested along with two associates and accused of land usurpation. In Civil Court, she was given alternative measures pending her trial date. As of 2019, Lilian has spent more than six years with alternative measures, under which she must periodically sign-in at a courthouse or risk imprisonment. She originally signed every two weeks, although this has since been modified to once a month, which has been a small relief to Lilian.
As a woman defender, Lilian has suffered persecution, threats and stigmatisation at a greater degree that the men around her, which has impacted her at a familial, psychosocial and economic level: “It is clear that I face greater criminalisation as a woman, than he does as a man. I was surprised. If I didn’t have someone willing to go with me and sign in, I would be in prison”.
Normally, alternative measures cannot last longer than the minimum prison term corresponding to the alleged crime. In Lilian’s case, this should be one year. However, there have been no advances in the process. Her hearings have been postponed at least 14 times, and on one occasion Lilian was not permitted to enter the court room. The legal process against her is exhausting: “Sometimes I feel discouraged. Sometimes I would like to leave it all behind, but I am tied to this process. They really have destroyed my life”.
* Information and testimonies extracted from the report 'Defending the land has a woman's name' prepared for he Universal Periodic Review (UPR) to Honduras in May 2020.