Jan 072014
 

By Nina Lakhani, The Guardian
Tuesday, January 7, 2014 11:01 EST
The west’s drive to reduce its carbon footprint cheaply is fuelling a dirty war in Honduras, where US-backed security forces are implicated in the murder, disappearance and intimidation of peasant farmers involved in land disputes with local palm oil magnates.

More than 100 people have been killed in the past four years, many assassinated by death squads operating with near impunity in the heavily militarised Bajo Aguán region, where 8,000 Honduran troops are deployed, according to activists.

Farmers’ leader Antonio Martínez, 28, is the latest victim of this conflict. His corpse was discovered, strangled, in November.

Peasant farmers say they are the victims of a campaign of terror by the police, army and private security guards working for palm oil companies since a coup in June 2009 ended land negotiations instigated by the deposed president, Manuel Zelaya.

Witnesses have implicated Honduran special forces and the 15th Battalion, which receives training and material support from the US, in dozens of human rights violations around the plantations of Bajo Aguán.

They say private security guards regularly patrol and train with the soldiers, and have even been given military uniforms and weapons for some operations.

The military denies the allegations, blaming the United Peasant Movement (Muca) for escalating violence in the region. Repeated requests for comment from the US embassy in Honduras failed to elicit a response.

Land occupations

The Bajo Aguán dispute dates back almost 20 years, to a World Bank-funded land modernisation programme. The farmers say thousands of hectares of land used for subsistence farming were fraudulently and coercively transferred to agribusinesses that grow African palms, which are lucratively exported to the west for biofuel, and are traded in the carbon credit market.

Since then, they have tried to reclaim the land using the courts, as well as roadblocks and illegal land occupations.

Zelaya launched an investigation to resolve the conflicts, but this came to an abrupt halt when he was toppled in a coup in 2009 that was backed by the business, political, military and church elites.

In December 2009, groups of subsistence farmers started large-scale illegal occupations on disputed land also claimed by the country’s biggest palm oil producer, the Dinant Corporation, which is owned by Miguel Facussé, one of Honduras’s most powerful men.

Dinant says 17 of its security guards were killed and 30 injured in clashes with farmers.

The region was heavily militarised in early 2010, and the farmers who were occupying the land were forcibly removed by soldiers enforcing contentious court orders. Accusations of human rights violations have escalated ever since.

In one incident, in 2012, Neptaly Esquivel, 32, a father of five, was permanently disabled by a bullet to the hip fired at close range by a soldier, whose face was hidden by a balaclava, during a peaceful protest against education reform. His case is with the inter-American court of human rights.

In another incident, Matías Vallé, 51, a founder member of Muca, was shot dead by two masked men on a motorcycle as he waited for a bus. Witnesses said a car full of private security guards was parked a few metres away.

His wife, Dominga Ramos, said he had rejected money from Dinant employees to stop the farmers’ movement, after which he was told there was a price on his head.

Ramos said: “I witnessed one police officer trying to hide a bullet shell in the ground with his foot. We buried him in a secret place so they couldn’t remove his head. I am tired and scared.

“My two sons left because of threats. We just want to work our land in peace.”

Dinant strongly denies any direct or indirect involvement in death squads or human rights violations.

It denies collusion between its security guards and government security forces to target peasant groups, and says it is committed to corporate social responsibility. The company says government security forces have been deployed against trespassers, who Dinant says are guilty of murder and other crimes.

A spokesman said Dinant was “not familiar” with the cases of Martínez, Esquivel or Vallé, and it had never been investigated for any suspected involvement. The company said it remained committed to “a quick and peaceful resolution to the Aguán conflict”.

Another recent case is the disappearance of Josbin Santamaría Caballero, who was allegedly shot and taken away in an army helicopter on 30 October 2012 as his wife and two young daughters cowered in their kitchen of their home.

The Dinant spokesman said the company was ignorant of his case, too.

Caballero, 25, son of a prominent peasant activist, had been publicly denounced as a violent criminal by Colonel German Alfaro, commander of the joint police-military Xatruch operation in the region.

Alfaro, trained at the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (formerly the School of the Americas) in Fort Benning, Georgia, denied any military involvement and said Muca, the most organised peasant group in the region, was responsible for the current violence.

Alfaro said: “Muca and other groups encourage farmers to confront agro-industrialists, maintain constant tension and insecurity, and commit crimes to destabilise the area with armed groups.”

Wider struggle

The Aguán conflict mirrors a wider struggle over land and natural resources across Honduras that for decades has pitted the poor majority against the country’s 10 oligarch families. Honduras became the world’s most violent country outside a war zone in 2011, and it is one of the poorest and most unequal in the Americas.

Activists say the use of state security forces to suppress protests against landgrabs, dams, mining and oil concessions has intensified since the 2009 coup. Over the same period the US has built up its military presence, with several bases in the country, which has become a major transit point for the international drugs trade. Between 140 and 300 tonnes of cocaine are believed to pass through Honduras every year en route from South America to the US and beyond.

Elections late last year boosted the status quo when the rightwing National party returned to power on a pro-business, pro-security manifesto amid allegations of electoral fraud and voter intimidation.

Bertha Oliva, director of the Committee of the Relatives of the Detained and Disappeared, said: “The police and military are using the cover of the US-led war on drugs in Honduras to eliminate many people, maybe including me: I am on the death list again.”

An investigation published in February by the Canadian group Rights Action (pdf) detailed 34 acts of violence and other crimes directly implicating the 15th Battalion. It said these typically occurred “in co-ordination with private security forces of palm oil corporations, Honduran national police agents and other military units … in what can only be characterised as death-squad activity.”

Karen Spring, from Rights Action, said: “The role of the military in terrorising and criminalising communities in the Bajo Aguán shows the complicity of the Honduran state and US government in supporting big business regardless of the killings.”

The use of private security has increased exponentially across Honduras, which now has five private security guards to every police officer.

The UN working group on mercenaries described consistent reports of guards using illegal weapons to carry out with impunity human rights violations including killings, disappearances, forced evictions and sexual violence.

Patricia Arias, who led the UN group, told the Guardian: “The most worrying information is about private security guards acting together with the police and army, for example the Xatruch operations in Bajo Aguán.”

Héctor Castro, vice-president of the Federation of Palm Growers, said both sides had committed abuses and broken the law. He added: “We don’t have a government or authorities which look for conciliation or apply the law equally.”

Vitalino Alvarez, a Muca leader who survived an assassination attempt in November 2012, said: “Each threat, disappearance and murder is part of the campaign of terror against us. We are blamed for killing each other and publicly called assassins, drug traffickers and drunks. We live, work and negotiate with guns pointed to our heads.”

From bananas to biofuels

Honduras was the original, archetypal banana republic: a small, poor, fertile country controlled by a small group of wealthy families with ties to transnational business interests such as Chiquita, formerly the United Fruit Company.

Bajo Aguán, with its lush terrain, sunny climate and myriad rivers, was once dominated by banana trees. In this landscape, poor campesinos barely scraped a living from back-breaking work.

Banana companies withdrew from the region in the 1930s, and its population declined. But by the 1980s the Aguán was one of the most diverse crop regions in Honduras, producing coconuts, pineapples, grapefruits and almost half of all the country’s bananas.

But African palm plantations have increased by almost 50% in the past three years, and now dominate the Bajo Aguán landscape, having replaced bananas and other edible crops. African palms, the saturated oil of which is a staple ingredient in processed foods and biodiesel, are now the most profitable crop in Honduras.

http://www.rawstory.com/rs/2014/01/07/dirty-war-over-clean-fuel-farmers-in-honduras-terrorized-by-u-s-backed-security-forces/

Jan 072014
 

Human Rights Watch
After a Decade, Files in Somchai Neelapaijit’s Case Go Missing
December 13, 2013

“Successive Thai governments have engaged in cover-ups to hide the identities of those responsible for Somchai’s abduction and feared murder. Suddenly the government is claiming that the files were stolen, a convenient excuse for the authorities to close Somchai’s case and let those responsible off the hook for justice.”
Brad Adams, Asia director

(New York) – The Thai government needs to account for missing documents in the case of the enforced disappearance and presumed murder of a prominent Muslim human rights lawyer nearly a decade ago, Human Rights Watch said today. On March 12, 2004, Somchai Neelapaijit was pulled from his car in Bangkok, allegedly by five police officers, and never seen again. No body was ever recovered.

On December 12, 2013, the Justice Ministry’s Department of Special Investigation (DSI) told reporters that Somchai’s case files went missing after anti-government protesters broke into DSI headquarters and destroyed one of the file cabinets. No other cases stored in the same maximum security zone were damaged or stolen, the department said. Somchai’s family told Human Rights Watch they feared that the DSI would use this as an excuse to stop the investigation, an outcome the family said officials told them was likely.

Leaders of the protest told Human Rights Watch that none of their supporters had entered the file storage room and stolen Somchai’s case files. They said they believed the files implicated police officers linked to their opponent, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

“Successive Thai governments have engaged in cover-ups to hide the identities of those responsible for Somchai’s abduction and feared murder,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Suddenly the government is claiming that the files were stolen, a convenient excuse for the authorities to close Somchai’s case and let those responsible off the hook for justice.”

At the time of his enforced disappearance, Somchai was involved in a lawsuit alleging widespread police torture of Muslim suspects in the insurgency-ridden southern border provinces.

On January 13, 2006, then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra announced that government officials were involved in Somchai’s abduction and killing: “The DSI is working on this case and murder charges are being considered. I know Somchai is dead, circumstantial evidence indicated that…and there were more than four government officials implicated by the investigation.” He said that collecting evidence and witnesses was “not easy because this case involves government officials.”

Over the past nearly 10 years, six prime ministers – including the current Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin’s sister – have failed to press the DSI to investigate the case in anticipation of criminal prosecutions of those responsible. In April 2005, Somchai’s wife, Angkhana Neelapaijit, submitted a formal complaint to the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances expressing disappointment that Thai authorities had failed to produce information on Somchai’s fate or whereabouts.

In a March 2007 report, “It Was Like Suddenly My Son No Longer Existed,” Human Rights Watch documented 22 cases of enforced disappearance that strongly implicated the Thai police and military. In none of these cases has there been a successful criminal prosecution of the perpetrators.

Human Rights Watch urged Thai authorities to take all necessary steps to stop the practice of enforced disappearances, including by making enforced disappearance a criminal offense.

In a much-publicized attempt to demonstrate its commitment to human rights and the rule of law, the Yingluck government on January 9, 2012, signed the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, but has yet to take steps towards ratification. The Thai penal code still does not recognize enforced disappearance as a criminal offense.

“Somchai’s ‘disappearance’ reflects glaring problems of state-sponsored abuses and the culture of impunity in Thailand,” Adams said. “Prime Minister Yingluck needs to demonstrate political courage by pressing the Justice Ministry to at last bring the perpetrators to justice.”

Background Information

Five police officers – Police Major Ngern Tongsuk, Police Lieutenant Colonel Sinchai Nimbunkampong, Police Lance Corporal Chaiweng Paduang, Police Sergeant Rundorn Sithiket, and Police Lieutenant Colonel Chadchai Leiamsa-ngoun – were arrested in April 2004 in connection with Somchai’s case and charged with coercion and robbery. None have been charged with the more serious crimes of abduction or other offenses connected to the enforced disappearance.

On January 12, 2006, the Central Criminal Court found Police Major Ngern guilty of physically assaulting Somchai and sentenced him to three years of imprisonment. The other four accused police officers were acquitted due to insufficient evidence. The judge concluded that the assault led to Somchai’s “disappearance” and criticized the efforts of the police to bring justice to this case. Specifically, the telephone records of the five police officers – which showed that they were in contact with one another in the days leading up to the abduction and in the vicinity of the scene of the crime – were not admissible, because they were not original or certified copies of the records. Police Major Ngern, who had been free on bail while appealing his case, was reported “missing” in a mudslide on September 19, 2008, while supervising his construction business on the Thai-Burmese border.

On March 11, 2011, the Appeals Court overturned the conviction of Police Major Ngern and dismissed the case against all other defendants citing the lack of evidence against them. The court also removed the wife and children of Somchai from being co-plaintiffs in the case, making it impossible for them to represent the family’s interests in any further legal actions. The reason that the court gave for removing them was that under section 5(2) of the Criminal Procedure Code, a co-plaintiff must only be of a deceased person or a person who is unable to act for him or herself. In this case, the court ruled that there was not sufficient proof that Somchai was dead, and therefore his family could not act on his behalf as joint plaintiffs with the public prosecutor.

At present, Somchai’s case is under consideration by Thailand’s Supreme Court.

Jan 072014
 

We, the undersigned 62 regional and international organizations, express outrage over the Lao Government’s ongoing failure to shed light on the enforced disappearance of prominent activist and civil society leader Sombath Somphone. 

December 15, 2013 marks the one-year anniversary of Sombath’s disappearance. Sombath was last seen on the evening of December 15, 2012 in Vientiane. Closed-circuit television (CCTV) footage showed that police stopped Sombath’s car at a police post. Within minutes after being stopped, unknown individuals forced him into another vehicle and drove away. Analysis of the CCTV footage shows that Sombath was taken away in the presence of police officers. This fact supports a finding of government complicity.

Despite the Lao Government’s pledge to “thoroughly and seriously” investigate Sombath’s disappearance [1], the authorities’ probe has been inadequate and unproductive. On January 18, 2013, 65 NGOs signed a joint letter to Lao Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong to express their concern over Sombath’s disappearance. Since then and in spite of widespread international calls for his return, including from the European Union (EU), the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) parliamentarians, the USA and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Sombath’s whereabouts remain unknown and there has been no progress in the investigation into the circumstances of his enforced disappearance. In addition, the authorities have rejected offers of technical assistance to analyze the CCTV footage.

For the past 30 years, Sombath has pushed tirelessly for expansion for civil society space and rights of the rural poor and young people to have a voice in the development of Lao society and governance. Shortly before his disappearance, Sombath played a key role in organising the Asia-Europe People’s Forum (AEPF), a civil society forum that preceded the official Asia-Europe Summit Meeting. At the forum, discussions on land and water issues, and poorly regulated FDIs which threatened people’s livelihoods were discussed openly for the first time in Laos.

Sombath’s enforced disappearance is not an isolated incident. To this day, the whereabouts of nine people, two women, Kingkeo and Somchit, as well as seven men, Soubinh, Souane, Sinpasong, Khamsone, Nou, Somkhit, and Sourigna, arbitrarily detained by Lao security forces in November 2009 in various locations across the country remain unknown. The nine had planned peaceful demonstrations calling for democracy and respect of human rights. Also unknown are the whereabouts of Somphone Khantisouk, the owner of an ecotourism guesthouse and an outspoken critic of Chinese-sponsored agricultural projects that were damaging the environment in the northern province of Luang Namtha. He disappeared after uniformed men abducted him in January 2007.

The Lao Government’s failure to undertake proper investigations into all these cases of enforced disappearances violates its obligations under Article 2(3) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Laos is a State party. The ICCPR states that governments must provide an “effective remedy” for violations of rights guaranteed by the Covenant, including the right to liberty and security of person.

We call on the Lao Government to:
Establish a new commission tasked with carrying out a prompt, thorough, independent, and impartial investigation into Sombath’s enforced disappearance and return him safely to his family.
Identify and hold accountable those responsible for Sombath’s enforced disappearance.
Undertake a thorough, impartial, and effective investigation into all allegations of enforced disappearances.
Extend an invitation for a country visit by the UN Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances.
Ratify the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance.
Respect and protect the rights of all human rights defenders, activists, and members of civil society.

We call on the international community, particularly EU Member States, ASEAN Member States, and the U.S., to:
Raise the issue of Sombath Somphone’s enforced disappearance with the Lao Government in all bilateral and multilateral fora.
Urge the Lao Government to immediately release all political prisoners and conduct effective and thorough investigations aimed at safely returning victims of enforced disappearances to their families.
Exert political and economic pressure on the Lao Government to ensure the promotion of reforms that guarantee respect for fundamental human rights in accordance with its international obligations.

Signed by:

1. Alternative ASEAN Network on Burma (Altsean-Burma)
2. Armanshahr/OPEN ASIA, Afghanistan
3. ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR)
4. Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA)
5. Banglar Manabadhikar Suraksha Mancha (MASUM), India
6. Boat People SOS
7. Burma Partnership
8. Bytes for All, Pakistan
9. Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee, Cambodia
10. Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC), Cambodia
11. Cambodian Volunteers for Society, Cambodia
12. Campaign for a Life of Dignity for All (KAMP), Philippines
13. Centre for Human Rights and Development (CHRD), Mongolia
14. Commission for the Disappeared and Victims of Violence (KontraS), Indonesia
15. Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (COMFREL), Cambodia
16. FIDH (International Federation for Human Rights)
17. Front Line Defenders
18. Gender and Development Advocates (GANDA) Filipinas, Philippines
19. Globe International Center, Mongolia
20. Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), Pakistan
21. Human Rights Defenders Alert, India
22. Human Rights Education Institute of Burma (HREIB), Burma
23. Human Rights Working Group (HRWG), Indonesia
24. Imparsial, Indonesia
25. Indonesian Legal Aid and Human Rights Association (PBHI), Indonesia
26. Indonesia Legal Aid Foundation (YLBHI), Indonesia
27. Informal Sector Service Center (INSEC), Nepal
28. INFORM Human Rights Documentation Centre, Sri Lanka
29. Institute for Legal Consultation and People Advocacy of North Sumatera (BAKUMSU), Indonesia
30. ISchool-Myanmar, Burma
31. Judicial System Monitoring Program (JSMP), Timor Leste
32. Justice for Peace Foundation, Thailand
33. Knights for Peace, Int’l
34. Koalisi Perempuan Indonesia, Indonesia
35. Lao Movement for Human Rights (LMHR)
36. Law and Society Trust (LST), Sri Lanka
37. League for the Defence of Human Rights in Iran (LDDHI)
38. Life Skills Development Foundation, Thailand
39. Odhikar, Bangladesh
40. People’s Empowerment Foundation (PEF), Thailand
41. People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy (PSPD), South Korea
42. People’s Vigilance Committee on Human Rights (PVCHR), India
43. People’s Watch, India
44. Programme Against Custodial Torture and Impunity (PACTI), India
45. Sawit Watch, Indonesia
46. Sehjira Deaf/HoH Foundation, Indonesia
47. Society for the Protection of the Rights of the Child (SPARC), Pakistan
48. Solidarity for Asian Peoples’ Advocacies Working Group on ASEAN (SAPA WG on ASEAN)
49. South East Asian Committee for Advocacy (SEACA)
50. Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA)
51. Suara Rakyat Malaysia (SUARAM), Malaysia
52. Taiwan Association for Human Rights, (TAHR), Taiwan
53. Task Force Detainees of the Philippines (TFDP), Philippines
54. Think Centre, Singapore
55. Thinzar Shunlei Yi Myanmar, Burma
56. Timor Leste National Alliance for International Tribunal (ANTI), Timor Leste
57. Union for Civil Liberty (UCL), Thailand
58. Vietnam Committee on Human Rights (VCHR)
59. WomanHealth Philippines, Philippines
60. World Organization Against Torture (OMCT)
61. Yayasan Mandiri Kreatif Indonesia, Indonesia
62. Yayasan Transformasi Lepra Indonesia, Indonesia

Jan 072014
 

The Guardian, 1/3/14

Alliance of Lawyers at Risk urgently seeks volunteers to provide unarmed protection for those under threat for their rights work

The death of Nelson Mandela was a reminder that it was as a lawyer that he first ran into serious trouble with the authorities in South Africa. Around the world, from Colombia to Nepal, from Mexico to Indonesia, there are still many lawyers under threat of prison or death as a direct result of their work.

It is three years now since the Alliance of Lawyers at Risk was launched in conjunction with Peace Brigades International (PBI), the organisation that sends volunteers around the world to provide unarmed protection for those under threat because of their human rights work.

The list of their members is a long one – Sir Henry Brooke, Peter Roth, Lord Woolf, Baroness Scotland, Phil Shiner, Dinah Rose, Nicholas Green, Geoffrey Robertson, Michael Mansfield, Lord Carlile, Sir Geoffrey Bindman to name but a few – but they are now urgently seeking new supporters and activists with legal skills for 2014.

“Lawyers in some countries are regularly subjected to threats to themselves or their families, are physically attacked and even abducted and forcibly ‘disappeared’ simply for doing their jobs,” says Susi Bascon of PBI UK. “In Colombia alone, as many as 25 lawyers may be killed each year.”

There are a variety of ways that lawyers in countries that don’t face such daily perils can help: sending fact-finding delegations to affected countries, assisting in the preparation of submissions to governments, and amicus curiae briefs, helping with the training of local lawyers, and providing financial support for PBI’s protection work.

One of the most recent interventions in Colombia was in the case of David Ravelo Crespo, a human rights campaigner jailed for 18 years for a murder of which he vigorously protests his innocence. In September, the Bar Human Rights Committee of England and Wales (BHRC) presented an amicus curiae report in relation to his conviction before the superior tribunal of Santander in Colombia. According to Kirsty Brimelow QC, president of the BHRC, irregularities in the case not only affect Ravelo, but have an impact on the exercise of due process in Colombia.

Of lawyers in Colombia, Brimelow says: “I’m lucky that I can work in London with minimal fear of being shot for my work. It’s a real threat in Colombia and lawyers and judges are frequently gunned down. One aspect of our work is that we are able to act as a bridge between government and victims and support dialogue. Colombia has great laws and a well-drafted constitution. However, the system is drowning in the sheer volume of cases – there is a backlog of two million – and the gap between court rulings and implementation is wide.” Brimelow, who has met President Juan Manuel Santos on two occasions, added that the Colombian government had “flung doors open to international human rights lawyers”.

There are grave dangers, too, in Nepal. Mandira Sharma is the chairperson and co-founder of Advocacy Forum (AF), Nepal’s leading organisation of human rights lawyers which was formed to address cases of rights violations for victims of the civil war which only ended in 2006 and in which 16,000 people died. As many of its cases are against senior security officials, its lawyers routinely face threats and obstruction to their work.

In January, UK authorities arrested Colonel Kumar Lama of the Nepalese army and charged him with two counts of torture under universal jurisdiction law. He is accused of committing crimes during the civil war. Nepal has accused Britain of breaching its sovereignty by carrying out the arrest and the case will be back in court this month. Because of their work relating to the case, Mandira and her colleagues were described as “traitors” in the media in Nepal and there are concerns for her safety.

Another case in which the Alliance and PBI have been involved is that of the disrupted prosecution for genocide of the former Guatemalan dictator José Efraín Rios Montt, who was found guilty by a domestic court in May of ordering the massacre of 1,771 members of the Mayan Ixil people during the country’s civil war in the early 1980s.

The conviction was overturned within a few days. Edgar Pérez, the lead Guatemalan prosecutor, told the Guardian earlier this year: “We hope to get a decision handed down [from the Inter-American Commission] that will put pressure on the national courts so that we can get back to the [80-year] sentence.”

PBI members accompanied Pérez to court hearings and meetings with government officials. “I know I’m being followed and that my phone is being intercepted but if I’m accompanied there’s a permanent reminder that the international community is watching.”

More help for such cases is urgently needed, says Susi Bascon, and members of the legal community – lawyers, judges, paralegal workers – are encouraged to contact her if they would like to contribute in any way.