By Minaz Kerawala, Communications and Public Relations Advisor
And you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.John 8:36
To some in Honduras, Víctor Vásquez is a habitual troublemaker. He gets in the way of powerful businessmen’s schemes. He thinks the poor have rights. He sheds light on what many would rather keep in the dark. And he doesn’t shut up. Not even when he’s shot!
To his Lenca Indigenous people, Víctor is an embodiment of the quest for justice.
An irrepressible defender of rights
Víctor is a member of the Consejo Indígena de Simpinula (Indigenous Council of Simpinula) and a leader of the Movimiento Indígena Independiente Lenca de La Paz (Lenca Indigenous Movement of La Paz, Honduras – MILPAH) in Honduras. In these capacities, he advocates for his people’s rights to their ancestral land and helps them resist its illegal privatization.
For this audacity, Víctor and many other Indigenous and human rights defenders like him have been threatened and persecuted for years. Víctor was even shot in the knee when the army violently broke up a farmers’ protest in January 2017.
Unsurprisingly for those who know him, Víctor remained undeterred. His recent troubles have been documented by Mary Lawlor, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders (see original report in Spanish).
An unjust incarceration
In 2018, the poor peasants of Nueva Esperanza heaved a sigh of relief when the state recognized their title to the little land from which they eked out a meagre living. Their joy, however, was short-lived.
Powerful local businessmen who had designs on their land began sending armed thugs to threaten the 32 peasant families, occupy and block access to their land and destroy their crops and livestock. When repeated formal complaints fell on deaf ears, the community sought the help of Víctor’s group, who took up their case with the local authorities.
Stung by this intervention, the businessmen alleged that on July 20, 2020, Víctor and his colleague, José Santos Vigil Girón, trespassed on and damaged their property. Víctor and José, who maintain that they were not even present in the vicinity on that date, were arrested on trumped up charges of criminal damage and aggravated theft in December 2020 and placed in “preventive detention.”
A long-drawn fight
While the theft and damage charges were dismissed for lack of evidence, perversely, a charge of forced displacement, of which the community was actually the victim, was laid against Víctor and José!
Fortunately, their case was taken up by Development and Peace ― Caritas Canada’s partner, Centro Hondureño de Promocion Para el Desarrollo (the Honduran Centre for the Promotion of Community Development, CEHPRODEC).
For over a decade, the generosity and solidarity of Canadians has allowed Development and Peace to help CEHPRODEC train, support and safeguard the human, social, cultural, economic and environmental rights of many vulnerable Honduran communities.
CEHPRODEC’s legal team represented Víctor and José through the tortuous legal process. As hearing after hearing went against them, Víctor and José languished in prison. Meanwhile, CEHPRODEC also helped organize protests outside courtrooms, drawing local and international attention to the case.
Canadians, too, became aware of this story when it was highlighted in our ongoing People and Planet First campaign.
Freedom, at last
Finally, after months of unequal courtroom battles against a justice system seemingly stacked against them, CEHPRODEC secured the release of Víctor and José on October 15, 2021.
In his first moments of freedom, held aloft by jubilant supporters, Víctor said, “Firstly I’d like to thank God. I also thank the legal team that took charge of my defence….”
Placing his organization’s concern for Víctor and José in its larger context, CEHPRODEC’s executive director, Donald Hernandez Palma said, “CEHPRODEC has long supported the defence of the rights of Indigenous peoples in the region of La Paz, …where we first accompanied the leaders… to regain possession of the titles that the Honduran State had already granted them.”
Víctor gratefully added, “In this prison, I did not feel alone. I felt strong because of the warmth and support of all my brothers and sisters at the national and international level.”
More struggles, and some hope
Although Víctor and José are free, their charges still stand. CEHPRODEC will continue defending them and several other human rights defenders who face similar intimidation through the abuse of the law.
There is some hope, however, that the tides are turning in Honduras.
In the November 2021 polls, Xiomara Castro of the left-wing Libre party was elected president on a progressive platform. Her party, which enjoys strong support among the Lenca people, has promised to fight corruption and support pro-poor social programs.
While cautiously optimistic, CEHPRODEC, like other civil society groups, remains vigilant.
To continue helping the most vulnerable people defend their precarious rights, our partners in Honduras and around the world need your support.