Indigenous Political Prisoners Struggle for Freedom and Justice in Honduras

Political prisoners*

"With the good intentions of transmitting a message of hope to all the compañeros in different communities, to indigenous peoples, to those of us struggling for justice, those of us who are always characterized by our work to defend the rights of the people, especially the right to our lands and all the resources our communities possess…"

These words, spoken by political prisoner Marcelino Miranda, reflect the unshakeable hope and courage that three years in jail have not been able to tarnish. Last Monday marked the three-year anniversary of the violent police attack on the remote Lenca descendent community of Montaña Verde, in southwestern Honduras, which led to the unjust imprisonment of Marcelino and his brother Leonardo.  

Thirty police, special-forces agents and armed civilians stormed Montaña Verde on the evening of Jan. 8 2003 in an operation that spilled over into the next day, which left bullets, tear gas and fear. Before leaving, this mob illegally arrested Marcelino and Leonardo and marched them to jail in the town of Gracias. The Miranda brothers, both Indigenous Communal Council leaders and outspoken community organizers in the struggle for Montaña Verde’s communal land and resources, were tortured in the community, on their way to Gracias and during the first months of their detention. 

The criminalization of indigenous resistance and grassroots activism is a frequent strategy in Honduras and the country’s (un)justice system. While the ongoing abuses by State agents—police, investigative agents, prosecutors, judges—continue in a climate of complete impunity, fabricated criminal charges have been laid for years against the majority of the Montaña Verde Indigenous Communal Council members, falsely accusing them of crimes ranging from land usurpation (of the community’s own communal land) to murder.

"Brothers and sisters, we are here in this place, prisoners – not prisoners because we are criminals, but because we have raised the voice of justice, a voice for those who have none," said Marcelino in a recent statement recorded for community radio, which explains the Honduran government’s criminal motivations behind its actions in Montaña Verde.

The most serious charge against six council members is murder, for which Marcelino and Leonardo have been sentenced to the maximum term of 25 years by the corrupt judicial ‘authorities’ in Gracias. Their case is currently in the Supreme Court at the last stage of the appeal process, while the Miranda brothers continue to speak out with tremendous courage and commitment.

"Compañeros, while it is true that one suffers here, it is worse to be a slave for a lifetime. It is better, compañeros, to suffer for a short while and to liberate our peoples, our communities,’ said Marcelino, calm and focused.

Luciano Pineda, another indigenous council member accused of murder, was violently attacked in early June of last year by armed civilians working as paramilitaries for powerful regional landlords. While undergoing treatment in the public hospital in Tegucigalpa (the national capital), he was placed under arrest and promptly transferred to the prison in Gracias. The machete wounds and the early release from medical treatment have caused permanent damage to his right hand, spine and head. 

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Felipe Bejarano

Luciano was recently acquitted of the murder; however, he has not been released due to another charge for theft and property damage, the same accusation that kept fellow council members Felipe Bejerano and Luis Benitez imprisoned for 27 months and 14 months, respectively, until their release on lack of evidence in 2003. Furthermore, in keeping with ongoing irregularities and abuses within the judicial system, although Luciano was acquitted in December, he did not receive the official documentation confirming his acquittal until Jan. 11.

Luciano’s acquittal has set a precendent for the others charged of the same crime, and so in the morning of Jan. 10 council members Margarito Vargas and Marcos Reyes were presented to the judge in Gracias, after over three years of living partially in hiding, under the constant threat of arrest or violent attack. They were acquitted on Saturday and are expected to be released from jail this week. 

At the root of the cause of the repression against the leaders of Montaña Verde is their struggle to defend the community’s land and rich natural resources from the powerful landowners that have attempted to take it over for decades. As a result of a powerful indigenous resistance movement begun in the mid-1990s led by the Civic Council of Grassroots and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH)—an organization with which Montaña Verde is affiliated—communal land titles were secured for many indigenous and afro-indigenous (Garifuna) communities. But in recent years there have been multiple attempts to undermine, fragment and privatize communal land by the State and international institutions such as the World Bank.

Of the two Montaña Verde communities, Vertientes finally received legal recognition of its communal land a few years ago, but Planes (which includes part of the rich cloud forest in the Montaña Verde Wildlife Refuge) continues to struggle for a communal land title in order to protect the community and leaders from the invasions and repression of the landowners and State.

"We are struggling against the landowners, against the invaders of our communities. In spirit, we are always with all communities that struggle. We will not back down while we continue to have hope. Our children and our future descendants will judge our actions. If we do not take action today, our future generations will feel regret," said Marcelino.

"Now I send a message of encouragement to all the peoples who hear us both here in Honduras and elsewhere in the world: we have not lost hope. A better world is possible. Brothers and sisters, let’s struggle together with strength and courage."

* Leonardo Miranda, Luciano Pineda and Marcelino Miranda

For more information, to get involved in the campaign to free the Montaña Verde political prisoners, or to send tax-deductible donations for legal and humanitarian support for them and their families, contact Rights Action: info@rightsaction.org, 416-654-2074, www.rightsaction.org 

Rights Action is a development, enviro and human rights organization, with its main office in Guatemala.  We: channel your tax-deductible donations to over 50 community development, environment and human rights organizations in Guatemala, Chiapas, Honduras, Haiti; provide accompaniment for ‘at risk’ community development leaders; carry out education & activist work with partner groups about global human rights, environment and development issues.