Persecution and resistance: The experience of human rights defenders in Guatemala and Honduras

August 8, 2007

Persecution and resistance: The experience of human rights defenders in Guatemala and Honduras

On 8 January 2003, Marcelino and Leonardo Miranda, Indigenous leaders of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations (Consejo Cívico de Organizaciones Populares e Indígenas -- COPINH), were arrested in the Planes community, Montaña Verde, Lempira Department, western Honduras. The brothers spent over three years wrongfully imprisoned before they were finally released in mid-2006.

Many of the initial charges brought against them were subsequently dropped for lack of evidence. However, in December 2003 they were convicted of the 2001 murder of Juan Reyes Gómez, despite evidence that the case against them was fabricated in reprisal for their role in trying to secure a communal land title for the Montaña Verde communities. They were sentenced to 25 years' imprisonment.(1)

The brothers were arrested in the context of an ongoing land dispute between Indigenous groups trying to secure communal land titles and local landowners who allegedly wanted to use the disputed land for cattle ranches, logging or the cultivation of coffee beans. Numerous community leaders have reportedly been threatened and intimidated by people believed to be linked to local landowners and there have been a number of cases of fabricated criminal charges against community leaders, reportedly following complaints by landowners.(2)

Throughout 2004 various appeals were lodged against the conviction of the Miranda brothers, on the grounds of procedural irregularities in their trials. All were rejected. On 27 October 2005, a new appeal was lodged on the grounds that the law had been wrongfully applied. This last appeal was successful and the Supreme Court acquitted Marcelino and Leonardo Miranda of murder. The brothers were finally unconditionally released on 12 July and 15 August 2006.


Human rights defenders are crucial actors of our time. They are at the forefront of the struggle for civil, political, social and economic rights -- a position which often puts them at particular risk of attacks and intimidation. In Central America, Amnesty International has documented attacks and threats against human rights defenders working to promote and protect a wide range of rights, some of whose cases are highlighted in this report. They represent some of the most marginalized civil society groups -- from Indigenous peoples to members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community, and women's groups.

The persecution of human rights defenders remains a major concern in Central America.(3) Despite positive advances in the development of international human rights standards on their protection, reports of killings, death threats, harassment and intimidation of human rights defenders in Central America continue. Unfounded investigations and prosecutions, surveillance of offices and homes and the theft of important human rights information and documents are just some of the tactics used to intimidate them and prevent them from continuing their work. Those responsible for violations against human rights defenders often evade justice. Investigations into these abuses are often grossly inadequate.

Human rights defenders(4) work for the realization of any or all of the rights set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The rights they defend may be civil and political (such as the right to be free from torture or to a fair trial), economic and social (such as the right to the highest attainable standard of health) or cultural (such as the right of Indigenous people to have control over their land and resources).

In her 2007 report, the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General on the situation of human rights defenders noted that defenders working on land rights, natural resources or environmental issues seem to be particularly at risk of attacks and violations of their rights.