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Guatemala: Stop treating indigenous human rights defenders like criminals – UN experts


GENEVA (27 July 2021) – UN rights experts* have expressed concerns over the criminalisation, violations of due process and health rights of an indigenous human rights defender in Guatemala.

"Mr. Bernardo Caal Xól has been criminalised because he, on behalf of his community, took a case all the way to the Supreme Court to try to halt the Oxec hydroelectric project," the experts said. "Sadly, this is not an isolated case; too often in Guatemala those who defend land and the environment are considered criminals."

Bernardo Caal Xól is a leader of the peaceful resistance of Cahabón, a collective of 38 Maya Q'eqchi' communities in the northern department of Alta Verapaz in northern Guatemala. In 2015, he organised peaceful opposition to the Oxec hydroelectric project, which the communities said endangered their sacred Cahabón River.

In retaliation, smear campaigns were launched in newspapers, on television and social media to discredit his work and to portray human rights defenders in a negative light, the experts said.

In November 2018, he was sentenced to seven years and four months in prison despite a lack of evidence against him and irregularities in the prosecution, the experts said. Bernardo's lawyers immediately filed an appeal following his conviction – however the hearings have been cancelled or suspended on numerous occasions, including due the decision of 69 judges from the appeals chamber to refrain from hearing the case.

Mr. Caal Xól has filed an appeal before the Supreme Court to present his arguments, including three amicus curiae briefs, which was finally heard on 21 June after many delays. A ruling was expected in 15 days but it has yet to be issued.

"We remain deeply concerned about long periods of pre-trial detention and the repeated suspension of hearings, which prolongs trials," the experts said. "We urge Mr. Caal Xól to be given a fair trial by a competent, independent and impartial tribunal without further delay," they said.

The experts also expressed concerns that Mr. Caal Xól's health has deteriorated since he was imprisoned in 2018. Cobán Prison, where he is held, is overcrowded, and has poor infrastructure, food and health services, the experts said. These bad conditions have become even worse during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"The Government of Guatemala should take immediate and effective measures to protect the health and safety of Mr. Caal Xól while he is incarcerated," the experts said, "and to guarantee his personal, physical and mental integrity, especially during the pandemic."


*The experts:Mr.Francisco Cali Tzay, Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples; Mr.Pedro Arrojo-Agudo, Special Rapporteur on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation; Mr. Surya Deva (Chairperson), Ms. Elżbieta Karska (Vice-Chairperson), Mr. Githu Muigai, Mr. Dante Pesce, and Ms. Anita Ramasastry, Working Group on business and human rights; Ms.Mary Lawlor, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders;

The Special Rapporteurs and Working Groups are part of what are known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. The Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN human rights system, is the general name for the Council's independent investigative and monitoring mechanisms that deal with specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent of any government or organisation and serve in their individual capacity.

For more information and media requests, please contact Mr. José Parra (jose.parra@ohchr.org) or Ms. Isabela Zaleski Mori (consultant.zaleskimori@ohchr.org)

For media enquiries about other UN independent experts, please contact Renato de Souza (+41 22 928 9855 / rrosariodesouza@ohchr.org).

Follow news related to the UN independent human rights experts on Twitter @UN_SPExperts.

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