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The most dramatic trend in the Americas continued to be the use of violence. Killings were reported in Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, and Venezuela. In many other cases, HRDs survived assassination attempts and faced violent intimidation, including shooting at their offices or homes, or the detonation of explosive devices outside their offices as in Colombia. Throughout the region, uncertainty and insecurity for HRDs remained high. eath threats, judicial harassment, arbitrary detention, defamation, break-ins, and attacks or intimidation of family members were regularly reported.
Despite the ongoing, systemic nature of violations against HRDs, in many countries the statistics of attacks against them were masked by generally-high levels of violence and crime. Attacks were carried out by a variety of actors, including government and other public officials, militias, private security and thugs hired by corporate entities, and criminal groups including transnational narco-trafficking groups.
2013 was a challenging year for indigenous peoples and those defending the rights to land, water and a clean environment, as well as for communities opposing abuses by corporate actors. Front Line Defenders reported on a number of such cases in Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico and Venezuela. In October the campesino community of Pitalito (Colombia) was forcibly and unlawfully evicted from its land. The community has been actively and non-violently struggling to defend their rights to the land since previously being forcibly displaced in June 2010. It established itself as a community of activists by offering support to other groups facing forced evictions and fighting for their land rights. In July, shots were fired outside the home of Yolanda Oquelí Veliz del Cid (Guatemala), the leader of a movement defending community land from the expansion of mining activities in San José del Golfo and San Pedro Ayampuc. Oquelí had survived a previous assassination attempt in 2012, and this latest attack happened just shortly after the killing of HRD Santos Fidel Ajau Suret as he returned from a peaceful sit-in protest against a mining project in La Puya village.
Women continued to be at the forefront of human rights defence and to be at particular risk of harassment, discrimination, stigmatisation, criminalisation and physical and sexual violence. The majority of official statistics of attacks against HRDs do not contain a gender indicator, and violations faced by WHRDs are not given specific attention. As a result, where they exist, protection mechanisms are not often designed with a gender dimension in mind. WHRDs working in defence of sexual and reproductive rights continued to face reprisals for their work supporting others. In Haiti, in August, the home of Malya Villard Apollon was attacked by a group of armed men, who fired gunshots at the gate. This was due to her work to prevent and redress sexual assault, and to care for survivors. She has been receiving threats for a number of years but these threats intensified since she was nominated as a ‘CNN Hero’ in 2012.
In many countries across the region LGBTI rights defenders were specifically targeted in acts of aggression, harassment and intimidation, and the authorities often failed to recognise them as targeted attacks resulting from their work on behalf of a marginalised community. In Honduras, the offices of the Asociación LGTB Arcoiris were broken into twice in the space of a week in September. In June, in Tegucigalpa, a transgender activist was shot by unknown assailants, another one was severely beaten in August, and the daughter of a leading LGBTI rights defender was kidnapped for several hours. In November, in Haiti, the office of an LGBTI group was broken into by armed individuals who assaulted and threatened its members.
Break-ins and theft or loss of sensitive information have increased in 2013. Cases were reported in Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras and Mexico. Whilst sending out a very clear message of intimidation, the theft of information also greatly hinders the activities of an organisation and puts a number of others at risk. Despite clear indications that the organisations were specifically targeted, because of the type of equipment tampered with or information removed, the authorities all too often treated these incidents as common robberies.
Cases of judicial harassment were reported in Colombia, Cuba, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras and Mexico. Fabricated criminal charges and short-term detentions were widely used to silence HRDs and undermine their credibility. Even when eventually acquitted, their human rights work was hindered through drawn out legal processes. When released on bail pending trial, HRDs often had restrictive, financially challenging and time-consuming conditions attached to their bail. In September, a magistrate in Honduras ordered the pre-trial detention of Berta Cáceres, general coordinator of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organisations of Honduras (COPINH), following a hearing on trumped-up charges of usurpation of land, coercion, and allegedly causing more than $3 million in damages to a hydroelectric dam company. Fellow HRDs Aureliano Molina and Tomás Gómez Membreño were ordered to sign in at a police station every 15 days. In Haiti, human rights lawyers found themselves prosecuted due to their work assisting victims of police abuses or exposing corruption.
Other attempts to discredit HRDs occurred through well-defined strategies of defamation and stigmatisation. Labelling HRDs as traitors and terrorists or accusing them of using violence serves to diminish support for that person’s work. Stigmatisation and attacks on reputation were reported in Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico and Venezuela. In April, in Venezuela, the Minister for Information and Communication initiated a smear campaign on Twitter against the NGO Programme for Education and Action on Human Rights (PROVEA). In October, media outlets in Mexico published statements made by a number of government officials denigrating and discrediting the work of human rights lawyer Lucha Castro Rodriguez . In Guatemala, a national newspaper regularly published supplements denouncing the activities of environmental rights defenders, including 2009 Front Line Defenders Award winner Dr Yuri Melini. HRDs were accused of being troublemakers funded from outside the country to undermine economic development and make money for themselves.
While the few existing examples of protection programmes designed specifically for HRDs are found in this region, it is regrettable that no significant progress was recorded regarding their effective implementation. Despite an encouraging start, the protection programme in Mexico, legally established in 2012, remains non-operational. In Brazil, the National Protection Programme provided assistance to several HRDs at risk. However, despite the commitment of its staff, major flaws remain with regard to the resources at its disposal, its reach and geographical scope.
HRDs based in North America also faced challenges. Front Line Defenders received reports of electronic surveillance, including the monitoring of comments posted on social networking sites, and of targeted funding cuts against HRDs in Canada. In the United States, there were reports of police harassment and intimidation as well as arson attacks against grassroots organisations working on issues such as sex work, drug policy and reproductive rights.
15 September 2014
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- Centro de Accion Legal en Derechos Humanos (CALDH) (Guatemala)
- Centro de Derechos Humanos (Mexico)
- Corporación de Promoción y Defensa de los Derechos del Pueblo (CODEPU) (Chile)
- Conselho Indigenista Missionario (CIMI) (Brazil)
- Fundacion de Avuda Social de las Iglesias Cristianas (FASIC) (Chile)
- Fundacion Regional de Asesoria en Derechos Humanos (INREDH) (Ecuador)
- Gabinete de Assessoria Jurídica ás Organizações Populares (GAJOP) (Brazil)
- Grupo Tortura Nunca Mais RJ (Brazil)
- Instituto Latinoamericano de Servicios Legales Alternativos (ILSA) (Colombia)
- Justica Global (Brazil)
- Liga Mexicana por la Defensa de los Derechos Humanos (LIMEDDH)
- Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (MST) (Brazil)
- Movimento Nacional de Direitos Humanos (MNDH) (Brazil)
- Coalition Nationale pour les Droits des Haitiens
- Centro de Estudios Legales y Sociales (CELS) (Argentina)
- American-Arab Anti Discrimination Committee (USA)
- Coalition of Immokalee Workers (USA)
- Jackson Advocate (USA)
- Kensington Welfare Rights Union (USA)
- Lynne Stewart (USA)