Amnesty International has just recently declared the Q’eqchi’ Maya Indigenous leader and Guatemalan human rights defender, Bernardo Caal Xol, a prisoner of conscience, for having been wrongly imprisoned for more than two years.
He had been defending the rights of communities of Santa María Cahabón, who had been affected by the construction of a hydroelectric plant on the Oxec and Cahabón rivers, in the Department of Alta Verapaz. The Cahabón river is probably more widely known among tourists to Guatemala as the river that flows through the famous Semuc Champey area.
Guatemala is currently affected by the climate crisis. Edwin Castellanos, the Dean of the Research Institute at Guatemala’s Universdad del Valle and a climate scientist says: “Over the past six years, the lack of rainfall has been our biggest problem, causing crops to fail and widespread famine. Normal, predictable weather years are getting rarer”.
In Santa Maria Cahabón, climate issues have been compounded by the Oxec hydroelectric projects. These projects have affected the ability of indigenous communities to access water and have disrupted the fluvial eco-system, reducing fish stocks.
Bernardo Caal filed a series of injunctions against the site, from 2015, and succeeded at one point to get Guatemala’s Supreme Court (CSJ) to suspend the licence.
Recognized as the Guardian of the River, Bernardo Caal, represented the communities in bringing demands against the Oxec company and the State of Guatemala for not respecting the legal right of indigenous communities to free, prior and informed consent. First before the Superior Court and then before the Constitutional Court. The first voted in favour of the communities recognizing that there had been no consultation process. The company appealed and the case was submitted to the Constitutional Court, who also confirmed the sentence in favour of the communities and suspended the Oxec hydroelectric project.
The victory however did not last long. In May of the same year, the Constitutional Court succumbed to pressure from business and political sectors and reversed its ruling: it restored authorization for the company to continue operating.
Bernardo Caal now found himself on the receiving end of a backlash directed towards him. For example, in early 2017, in various communities of San Pedro Carchá y Cobán, hundreds of flyers were thrown from vehicles seeking to criminalise Bernardo Caal and to also delegitimise and prejudice those who were defending the río Cahabón, and the Q’eqchi’ people of Santa María Cahabón.
In November 2018, Bernardo Caal was sentenced to seven years and four months in prison for the crimes of unlawful detention with aggravating circumstances and aggravated robbery. According to the Guatemala Human Rights Commission, the charges relate to a meeting held in October 2015 when communities impacted by the Oxec projects met – as thousands attended the meeting the crowd spilled across the road. Prosecutors allege that workers from a cable television company (which has contracts with the Oxec dam) were unable to pass through the crowd and that during this time items in their truck were stolen.
Prosecutors claim Caal Xol was responsible, as a leader of the Q’eqchi’ communities. Caal Xol’s lawyers have explained that witnesses provided contradictory evidence and that no witnesses claim he stole items. “When one looks at all that has happened in the process, the criminalisation is obvious” Caal Xol says.
He says that the case against him was brought: “to punish those who oppose projects and file complaints against companies”.
Greenpeace has described his imprisonment as “a clear case of criminalisation of those who lead the struggle against projects in which communities have not had prior consultation as stipulated in the International Labour Organization´s convention 169”.
Peace Brigades International (PBI) have been accompanying the Peaceful Resistance Cahabón in their struggle for their rights with regard to the imposition of the hydroelectric project.
PBI had an interview with Bernardo Caal, while he was in the Preventative Centre in Cobán prior to his trial. The boredom, the repetition, the small humiliations, the bad food, are all part of being in jail.
What keeps him going? What gives me strength is the struggle that other people carry on – against the companies that strip territory. To know that others continue the fight and that I am not alone. That there are people monitoring my situation and that national and international organizations accompany me. Also, to be able to show the people who have me here (in jail) that the lies the companies make up can be dispelled and that the q’eqchi’ peoples have dignity and cannot be bought off and can progress in the face of any adversity. We are slowing down the dispossessions the company carries out. It also motivates me to serve as an example for other struggles and resistances.
What do you think of the accusations against you?
When one looks at all that has happened in the process, the criminalization is obvious. Before I was detained, they created pages on social networks to provoke hate against me – to tell the world ¨this guy is a criminal¨. Then they filed formal complaints at the Public Prosecutor’s Office (MP), put out an arrest warrant which was also published on social networks and in the media just minutes after the judge signed the order. This is not something that is public. Someone had to have sent it to the press so they could publish it. My questions is: ¨who did this?¨ The media gave exaggerated coverage to my case to promote hate and label me as a delinquent, criminal, and to undermine my leadership. Thousands of Guatemalans think I am a criminal and I am condemned. Once they detained me, they started working on how to keep me in prison using stalling tactics to continue punishing me. The most worrisome is the possibility of conviction, for how many years can they convict an innocent person?
The answer, as he would find out, was seven years and four months.
“Having reviewed the ongoing criminal proceedings against Bernardo Caal, it’s clear that there’s no evidence of the crimes that he’s accused of. On the contrary, the proceedings against Bernardo show the same patterns of criminalization of human rights defenders that we have documented in the country for years. We therefore declare today that he is a prisoner of conscience, we demand his freedom and we ask that the Attorney General’s Office review his case and investigate the officials who carried out the investigation,” said Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas director at Amnesty International.
“Unfortunately, in Guatemala those who speak out to defend their rights continue to be criminalised. The authorities continue to use the criminal justice system to silence and imprison human rights defenders, and this time it is Bernardo who has had to spend more than two years in prison only for being one of the public faces of the complaints of the Q’eqchi’ People. The Guatemalan authorities must put an end to these unfair practices that jeopardise the right to defend human rights.”
In a public letter sent to the Attorney General, María Consuelo Porras, Amnesty International expressed its concern over the irregularities and negligence in the criminal proceedings against Bernardo Caal – such as the lack of objective evidence to support the charges – that coincide with the patterns of criminalization previously documented by the organisation in cases against those defending the land or environment.
Amnesty International defines prisoners of conscience as those who have not used or advocated violence but are imprisoned or subjected to other restrictions on their freedom due to their religious, political or other beliefs, their ethnic origin, sex, colour, language, national or social origin, sexual orientation or gender identity, or other status. Bernardo Caal is the first prisoner of conscience to be declared by the organization in Guatemala since the signing of the Peace Agreements that brought an end to the internal armed conflict in the country in 1996.
Bernardo Caal’s lawyers have been appealing his sentence since 30 November 2018. However, the trial has been unduly delayed and the hearing has still not been held due to the fact that on four occasions the designated judges did not appear or submitted an excuse not to hear the case. The next hearing is scheduled for 28 July 2020.
The announcement from Amnesty International can be found here.
Categories: Accompaniment, Criminalisation, Environment, Guatemala, Human Rights, Indigenous peoples, Justice, Land, Legal, Lobbying, Mining, Report, Resource Extraction, Solidarity in Action, Violence