GENEVA (19 December 2018) – UN rights experts have expressed concerns over the jailing of an indigenous leader and human rights defender in Guatemala following opposition to a hydro-electric dam project.
Bernardo Caal Xól, who was sentenced in November to seven years and four months’ imprisonment, has represented the q’eqchí’ communities in Santa Maria Cahabón municipality in legal actions against the Oxec company’s project since 2015.
“The criminalisation of Mr. Caal Xól was preceded by virulent defamation campaigns in media, depicting him as a violent criminal acting against the interest of the nation,” said the Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, who visited Guatemala in May 2018 and met him in prison in Cobán.
“When we met, Mr. Caal Xól expressed serious concerns over his personal security in prison. I urge that his effective protection be ensured,” the independent expert said.
The project started without consultation and the consent of the affected communities and has had a detrimental impact on the environment, the natural resources, access to water and the health of the q’eqchí’ communities, the experts said. Watch the video.
In January 2017, the Supreme Court had ordered a temporary suspension of the Oxec project, causing losses to the company, and in May 2017, the Constitutional Court issued a judgement which recognised the right to free, prior and informed consent of the q’eqchí’ peoples concerned.
Coinciding with the timing of the legal complaints against the hydroelectric project Oxec, Mr. Caal Xól faced criminal charges lodged against him by a subsidiary of the Oxec company. Since January 2018, he has been placed in pre-trial detention.
“The conviction of Mr. Caal Xól to over seven years in prison on charges of illegal detention and aggravated robbery of a drill, a tool box and some fibre optic cable, appears grossly inflated and was primarily based on testimonies of affiliates with the Oxec company. The conviction of the q’eqchí’ leader is an apparent attempt to silence and discredit the legitimate exercise of the rights of the indigenous community,” the experts stated. “This is not an isolated case; there are numerous indigenous community members who are being criminalised in Guatemala for defending their traditional lands and resources against large-scale development projects which cause environmental damage. We recall that criminal investigations must be independent and impartial.”
“We urge the Government to ensure the effective protection of indigenous human rights defenders. We also recall that business enterprises have an independent responsibility to respect human rights, in line with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights”, the experts concluded.
* The UN experts: Ms. Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples; Mr. David R. Boyd, Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment; Mr. Michel Forst, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders; Mr. Léo Heller, Special Rapporteur on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation; Working Group on human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises: Mr. Surya Deva, Ms. Elżbieta Karska, Mr. Githu Muigai, Mr. Dante Pesce and Ms. Anita Ramasastry.
The Special Rapporteurs and Independent Experts are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either 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 from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.
UN Human Rights, country page – Guatemala
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