When it was announced that the government of Fiji would chair this year’s climate talks in Bonn, Germany, expectations were high. As a small island, Fiji sees climate change as an existential threat.

Indigenous peoples demand their rights at climate negotiations in Marrakesh, Morocco, November 2016,

© 2016 Katharina Rall / Human Rights Watch

The talks wrapped up on Friday, and during the last two weeks, advocates for gender equality and indigenous peoples made their voices heard and won hard-fought battles to better respect their rights. Notably, governments agreed to create a platform to promote the participation of indigenous peoples in United Nations climate responses, and adopted a Gender Action Plan that aims to better integrate gender equality in climate change policies.

There was also increased attention given to environmental rights defenders and indigenous people who have been killed, attacked, and threatened for their activism. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights noted that governments often fail to conduct serious and timely investigations.

Just when the talks were nearing their end, human rights were pushed to the fore when Fijian prime minister and president of the climate talks, Frank Bainimarama, convened a high-level event about the importance of rights in climate negotiations. Why was this such a big deal? Because never before has any government presiding over the talks hosted an official event on human rights.

Bainimarama has also long been among those who have been silent on human rights issues. But on Thursday, he announced that integrating human rights in the implementation of the Paris Agreement was an important element of Fiji’s presidency, which will continue through the coming year. Costa Rica’s environment minister, Edgar Gutiérrez-Espelata, also proposed concrete ways to integrate rights into the current negotiations about the so-called Paris Rulebook. For example, governments could reference human rights obligations in climate change action plans and climate negotiators could agree to build capacity among states on promoting human rights in climate action.

Of course, such commitments are worth little unless governments are willing to turn rhetoric into reality. If they are serious about fighting climate change, governments should also do more to integrate the protection of human rights in climate policies, while defending the rights of people working to protect the environment.

Author: Human Rights Watch, Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

A fisherman paddles his banca amidst ruins of house stilts destroyed by Typhoon Haiyan on a coastal village in Tacloban city in central Philippines November 2, 2015.

© 2015 Reuters

“Will this be our fate – just to count the victims of climate change or be counted among them?”

Those words open a petition filed with the Philippine Commission on Human Rights after one of the most powerful typhoons on record – Super Typhoon Haiyan, known locally as Yolanda – devastated the Philippine archipelago in 2013.

The petition, drafted and signed by Greenpeace Southeast Asia and other groups, requests that the commission conduct an “investigation of the responsibility of the carbon majors” – the largest companies producing crude oil, natural gas, coal, and cement, who are also the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitters – “for human rights violations resulting from the impacts of climate change.” The inquiry will result in findings and recommendations.

The commission held its first hearing on this petition in March and its second hearing will be held on May 23 and 24. Human Rights Watch presented this week and explained the responsibility of corporations when it comes to respecting human rights. Our testimony underlined the potential of a right to a healthy environment to address the grave inequities suffered by people and communities exposed to environmental degradation and to bring these people relief and justice.

Recent scientific research has quantified and traced the carbon majors’ cumulative share of carbon dioxide and methane emissions since the industrial revolution. Given the causal connection between the accumulation of such greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and climate change, this body of scientific evidence is key to the commission’s examination of the responsibility of carbon majors for climate change impacts in the Philippines, one of the countries most affected by climate change.

The petition has great significance for millions of people who are, and will be, impacted by climate change. It could also have great significance for humanity’s sense of justice and responsibility towards the totality of life on the planet.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Yesterday, a court in Ecuador found Agustín Wachapá, a Shuar indigenous leader who opposes mining in the Ecuadorian Amazon, not guilty of inciting violence. The verdict ends a 17-month ordeal that Wachapá should never have endured.

Agustín Wachapá, a Shuar indigenous leader.

© Agustín Wachapá/Twitter

Wachapá was charged with inciting violence after a December 2016 clash between police and opponents of a mining project. Wachapá was president of a Shuar indigenous association that opposed the mining project at the time of his arrest, but he denied taking part in the confrontation, and the prosecutor had no evidence proving otherwise. After the clash at the mine, then-President Rafael Correa publicly denounced several indigenous leaders who opposed the mining project, singling out Wachapá on a nationally broadcast TV address.

Days after Correa’s broadcast, the Interior Ministry submitted a criminal complaint against Wachapá, prompting a prosecutor to charge him with “incitement to violence.” Wachapá was arrested and spent four months in pretrial detention in a maximum-security prison, 300 kilometers from his family. He was granted provisional release after paying a US$6000 bail in April 2017.

Human Rights Watch reviewed the case and found that the only arguably relevant evidence against Wachapá was a message he posted to Facebook after the confrontation. Though the language of that post is ambiguous, it was not defensible for the prosecution to bring serious criminal charges solely on the strength of this one weak piece of evidence.

Wachapá isn’t alone. A recent Human Rights Watch report shows that prosecutors in three prominent cases in Ecuador – including Wachapá’s – failed to produce sufficient evidence to support serious charges or justify years-long criminal investigations against indigenous leaders and environmentalists.

Human Rights Watch also found credible evidence that high-level officials of Correa’s administration have interfered in court cases touching on government interests. It was the interior vice-minister who filed the criminal complaint against Wachapá. Wachapá’s lawyers said he sat in the courtroom for every hearing, except for the final trial hearing.

Yesterday’s verdict ends the legal harassment of the indigenous leader – something he never should have gone through. The Attorney General’s office should investigate the handling of this case and take steps to ensure that no one is subjected to arbitrary arrest or incarceration. It should also ensure no one is prosecuted in the absence of credible evidence linking them to a crime.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Women climate change activists demand respect for rights at Paris Agreement signing ceremony outside the United Nations in New York, April 2016.

© 2016 Katharina Rall/Human Rights Watch
As this month’s climate talks in Germany come to an end, some participants are feeling a little queasy. Environmental activists and indigenous peoples worry about their ability to actively participate in the annual UN climate talks, in Katowice, Poland in December.

UN human rights experts share their concerns. Earlier this week five experts - including the special rapporteurs on environment and human rights, on freedom of assembly, and human rights defenders - raised the alarm about a new Polish law that could hamper civil society’s involvement at the climate summit, known as the COP24. It will bring together state parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change(UNFCCC), and thousands of experts, journalists, businesses and nongovernmental groups.

The UN experts cite concerns about the ban on spontaneous assemblies in Katowice during the talks, which will make it difficult for groups to respond to developments at the negotiations. In a letter sent to the Polish government last month they said that by “curtail[ing] the possibility of spontaneously expressing views about the unfolding of the climate talks and organizing peaceful assemblies to this effect”, the new law appears to go beyond the rights restrictions necessary to ensure security and safety at the conference.

The UN experts also noted that the law “appears to give sweeping surveillance powers to the police and secret services to collect and process personal data about all COP24 participants”. This is a serious issue for the safety of climate activists at the summit.

Some environmentalists are under attack because of their work, and they worry that the Polish law could be used to spy on them and lead to retaliation. This is not only a threat to their individual rights, but could hamper the success of the summit. Activists play an important role in the global climate debate by providing relevant information to policymakers and the media, but they can only do that if they can effectively exercise their rights.

Last month, Patricia Espinosa, the executive secretary of the UNFCCC, acknowledged the concerns about the law in a letter to observer organizations, and committed to “engage with the COP24 Polish presidency in an effort to ensure that non-party stakeholders are able to participate in COP24 as they have in past COPs”. However, her letter doesn’t address the specific risks the law could pose to public participation.

The Polish government has yet to respond to the UN rights experts. But a reply from the Polish environment minister to similar concerns raised by the Bureau of the Aarhus Convention, a regional human rights and environmental body, has done little to dispel them.

The government contends that the dates of the conference are known, so that activists could “book” demonstrations in advance.  But at climate negotiations, events unfold quickly and progress is often not clear until the last moment. Unless nongovernmental groups can respond spontaneously and organize peaceful protests when necessary, their rights are seriously undermined.

The Polish government also compares the ban to the situation in 2015 in Paris, where the terrorist attacks immediately preceding the climate conference led to a ban on demonstrations in the city. But unlike in Paris, the Polish ban is not a reaction to a concrete security threat.

Similarly, the Polish government claims that the surveillance powers for the police are necessary “due to the temporary increase in terrorist, extremist and common crime threats.” In addition to collecting information about anyone posing a threat to public safety and order, the new law authorizes the police to collect data about anyone registered as participants in COP24 without their consent until January 31, 2019.

But, the UN experts said, providing this authority without judicial review “appears to be unwarranted and unbalanced”. This is particularly true in light of the existing counterterrorism provisions in Poland that grant extraordinary surveillance powers to the Internal Security Agency for anyone suspected of terrorist activity, especially foreigners.

During meetings in Bonn this week, the Polish government emphasized its commitment to work closely with civil society to confront the global climate crisis and achieve the objectives set out in the Paris Agreement. To make this a reality, Poland should urgently amend or repeal the law to ensure that non-party stakeholders can fully exercise their rights during COP24. The UNFCCC Secretariat and other governments involved in the negotiations should work with the Polish government to provide the space for a vibrant civil society at the climate talks.

As the statement of the UN experts notes: “All eyes are on the Polish Government to see how, as the host and the president of COP24, it will honour its human rights obligations and uphold its responsibility to ensure free and unfettered access for broader participation.”

Katharina Rall is an environment researcher at Human Rights Watch. Her work focuses on human rights violations in the context of climate change and environmental health.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Groups of miners in the diamond fields in Marange in 2006. When the scramble peaked in October 2008, more than 35,000 people, including children and women, were either mining or buying diamonds in Marange.

© 2006 Associated Press

Thousands of villagers around east Zimbabwe’s Marange diamond fields took to the streets on Monday to protest the looting of diamond revenue and were met by armed soldiers and police who fired tear gas canisters to disperse the demonstrators, according to witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch.

The police argued that the protest had not been authorized under the repressive Public Order Security Act (POSA), which severely limits freedom of association, public debate, and criticism of the government.

Human Rights Watch has documented how Zimbabwe’s armed forces have coerced children and adults into carrying out forced labor, and tortured and harassed local villagers when they seized control of the diamond fields. Armed forces personnel also killed more than 200 people in Chiadzwa, a previously peaceful but impoverished part of Marange, in late October 2008.

In March 2016, former President Robert Mugabe, while providing no evidence, told the state broadcaster that diamonds worth more than US$15 billion had been looted in Marange. No one has been held to account for the alleged looting. After years of alleged diamond revenue looting by state-owned companies, with no benefits to the local communities, the villagers’ protest is an indication that patience is wearing thin.

According to the Centre for Natural Resource Governance, which works closely with Marange community activists, representatives of the Marange communities petitioned the Parliament of Zimbabwe in March to “ensure diamond mining contributes to development of the health, educational and road infrastructure of the Marange community, especially areas affected by diamond mining.”

The Zimbabwe authorities have failed to ensure greater revenue transparency from diamond mining. Mechanisms for regulating diamond mining are needed to ensure the rights of local communities to information, and to protect them from forced evictions and from negative health and environmental impacts of mining.

The government’s heavy-handed response to the situation in Marange is counterproductive and likely to fuel violence. Authorities should investigate the violence, hold those responsible for any abuses to account, and open channels for genuine and constructive dialogue to address the communities’ concerns. The global rough diamond industry regulatory body, the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme, should also ensure it is adequately equipped to investigate allegations of serious human rights abuses and the looting of Marange diamonds.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Xolobeni community members and environmental activists march and chant slogans in front of South Africa's Pretoria High Court, April 24, 2018. 

© 2018 Dewa Mavhinga/Human Rights Watch

This week, the Pretoria High Court has presided over a case brought by the Xolobeni community against the government that could have far reaching implications for mining communities across South Africa.

Members of the community in the Eastern Cape province asked the Pretoria High Court to rule that the South African Department of Mineral Resources cannot issue a mining license without the community’s consent. The Xolobeni community also argued that the government has to respect the rights of the people who have lived on the land for generations, even if they do not have a formal land title.

Since 2007, members of the Xolobeni community on South Africa’s Wild Coast have pushed back against the idea that the government can allow mining operations to occur in their area, without them having a say in it. They are concerned that mining would lead to displacement, destruction of the environment and their livelihoods.

As the judge listened to the legal arguments in a packed courtroom, outside, hundreds of community members and environmental activists marched and chanted slogans in support of their cause. They were joined by civil society organizations from around the country.

The presence of many environmental activists is an important testament to their commitment and courage, given the attacks some of them have faced.

Sikhosiphi Rhadebe, one of the activists from Xolobeni, was killed two years ago. No one has been identified or arrested, far less convicted for his murder, and his family says the investigation has stalled.

Nonhle Mbuthuma, one of the plaintiffs in the case and another courageous leader of the Xolobeni community, has faced harassment and death threats. She told Human Rights Watch that the community hoped for victory. “But if the High Court does not rule in our favor we will take the matter up to the Supreme Court of Appeal and, if need be, to the Constitutional Court,” she said.

A judgment from the Pretoria High Court is expected in three to four months. The South African government should ensure that all the activists involved in this case and around the country are safe and that their rights are protected.

Author: Human Rights Watch, Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Indigenous people arrive in Quito after marching for 10 days to protest new mining and water law initiatives, as well as a constitutional reform project that would have allowed for indefinite re-election of the president. August 12, 2015.

© 2015 José Jácome/EFE
Last month, Latin America and Caribbean countries adopted a landmark regional agreement on environmental rights – the first to offer specific protections for people who stand up in defense of their right to a healthy environment.

On Earth Day, the effort is a good reminder of the dangers and challenges that still face environmental defenders around the region.

The treaty, adopted in Escazú, Costa Rica, will require states that ratify it to take measures to recognize and promote the work of environmental defenders, as well as measures to prevent and investigate attacks or threats against them.

Take the case of Agustín Wachapá, a Shuar indigenous leader in Ecuador. In December 2016, after a clash between police and opponents of a mining project, then President Rafael Correa singled out Wachapá – who was president of the Interprovincial Federation of Shuar Centers– on his nationally broadcast TV show, depicting him as violent. Shortly after the broadcast, Ecuador’s Interior Ministry filed a criminal complaint against Wachapá and a prosecutor charged him with “incitement to violence.”The case has loomed over Wachapá’s head ever since, even though the prosecution has presented no meaningful evidence to sustain the charges. The court is expected to deliver a verdict on his case on May 16.

Or the case of Berta Cáceres, an environmental activist and co-founder of the Council of Popular and Indigenous organizations of Honduras, who was murdered in 2016. By then, Cáceres had endured years of death threats for defending her people’s lands.

The Escazú Agreement recognizes that the work of environmental defenders, like Wachapá and Cáceres, is important for democracy and sustainable development. It requires parties to guarantee that people defending their environment and communities can work safely without restrictions or threats.

The work of Human Rights Watch, together with our partners, was critical in securing these protections for environmental defenders in the treaty. We worked with environmentally-oriented representatives from Chile, Costa Rica, Panama, Paraguay and Peru, as well as the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Environment, in the elaboration of text for dedicated protections to environmental defenders. We helped form a coalition of non-governmental partners—including human rights and environmental organizations from Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador and other countries in the region -- that advocated on the importance of those protections.

The inclusion of these protections is an important step in protecting our environmental defenders, whose work keeps land healthy, for the people who depend on it and for us all.

 

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

A girl works in an artisanal diamond mine in Sosso Nakombo, Central African Republic, near the border with Cameroon, in August 2015.

© 2015 Marcus Bleasdale for Human Rights Watch

This week, a gathering of governments, companies and civil society groups at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in Paris will assess companies’ efforts to curb serious abuses in their minerals supply chains.

Money from mining minerals like gold or cobalt – used in smart phones and laptops – has fuelled armed conflicts and the mining itself can result in dangerous pollution.

This annual meeting is a chance to review the implementation of the OECD’s Guidance on sourcing minerals responsibly, now widely recognized as the standard by which companies should conduct themselves.

Jewelry Brands Should Come Clean

Jewelry Brands Should Come Clean

You should know what is #BehindTheBling. This Mother's Day tell global jewelry brands to ensure their jewelry is responsibly sourced and address human rights abuses in their supply chains.

This is crucially important. Many companies still fall short of the Guidance and risk contributing to human rights abuses. Human Rights Watch has documented how civilians have suffered in armed conflict situations when armed groups have fought over access to mines. Communities near mines have faced ill-health and environmental harm as mines have polluted waterways with toxic chemicals. And children have risked their lives when working in small-scale mines in Mali, Ghana, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Papua New Guinea, and the Philippines.

We recently scrutinized 13 well-known jewellery companies for their sourcing practices and found that none of the companies were fully in line with the OECD Guidance. Most of the companies we analysed did not sufficiently assess human rights risks, had no or only partial traceability for their gold and diamonds, and failed to provide comprehensive public reports on their responsible sourcing efforts.

While this week’s meeting can and should discuss whether progress has been made, it cannot measure how the OECD Guidance is being put into practice. What is needed is government oversight. So far, governments have provided little, prompting Human Rights Watch and other civil society groups to call for change and outline what such a monitoring mechanism could look like. The OECD secretariat has taken a positive step by putting the issue on the agenda of this week’s meeting and requesting governments to provide information.

It is time for governments to make a commitment to check what companies on their territory are doing to protect human rights in their supply chains. They should name the companies that are making progress, as well as those that aren’t.

Communities affected by abuses in mining deserve their protection.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Top (left to right): Le Thu Ha, Nguyen Bac Truyen, and Nguyen Trung Ton
Bottom (left to right): Nguyen Van Dai, Truong Minh Duc, and Pham Van Troi

 

© Private

(New York) –  Vietnam should drop all charges against rights campaigners Le Thu Ha, Nguyen Bac Truyen, Nguyen Trung Ton, Nguyen Van Dai, Pham Van Troi, and Truong Minh Duc and release them immediately, Human Rights Watch said today. The People’s Court of Hanoi is scheduled to hear their case on April 5, 2018.

The six activists were charged with “carrying out activities that aim to overthrow the people’s administration” under article 79 of the penal code.

“The only crime that these activists have committed is to campaign tirelessly for democracy and defend victims of human rights abuses,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “The Vietnamese government should thank them for their efforts to improve the country instead of arresting and putting them on trial.”

The only crime that these activists have committed is to campaign tirelessly for democracy and defend victims of human rights abuses.

Brad Adams

Asia Director

Le Thu Ha, Nguyen Bac Truyen, Nguyen Trung Ton, Nguyen Van Dai, Pham Van Troi, and Truong Minh Duc are accused of being affiliated with Brotherhood for Democracy, which was founded in April 2013 by Nguyen Van Dai and fellow activists. With the stated goal “to defend human rights recognized by the Vietnam Constitution and international conventions” and “to promote the building of a democratic, progressive, civilized and just society for Vietnam,” Brotherhood for Democracy provides a network for activists both in and outside Vietnam who campaign for human rights and democracy in Vietnam.

Members of the group conducted informal trainings on civil society, human rights, and democracy, and learned skills such as safety and security on the internet. They participated in anti-China and pro-environment protests, and in humanitarian activities such as helping victims of natural disasters and veterans with disabilities. The Brotherhood for Democracy provided legal assistance to fellow activists who were arrested and charged for their pro-democracy activities and co-signed petitions calling for democracy and human rights in Vietnam. They also visited the family of political detainees and prisoners to show solidarity.

All six activists have participated in numerous human rights activities, including campaigning for victims, teaching human rights standards, advocating for religious freedom, and supporting political prisoners and their families. Nguyen Bac Truyen, Nguyen Trung Ton, Pham Van Troi, and Truong Minh Duc joined other civil social groups to campaign against Formosa, a Taiwanese steel company that dumped toxic waste into the sea and caused a massive marine disaster along the central coast of Vietnam.

The police arrested Nguyen Van Dai and Le Thu Ha in December 2015 and charged them with conducting propaganda against the state under article 88 of the penal code. Both were held in detention for almost 20 months without access to legal counsel. In July 2017, the police changed the charge to “carrying out activities that aim to overthrow the people’s administration” under article 79 of the penal code. The other four were arrested in July 2017 under the same charge.

Except for Le Thu Ha, each of the other five accused had previously served prison sentences for their peaceful pro-democracy and human rights activism.

According to Quang Binh Online, the mouthpiece of the communist party branch of Quang Binh province, “to take advantage of the maritime environmental incident in the central coast in April 2016, together with other hostile forces and reactionary elements, Brotherhood for Democracy strived to propagandize, distort, stir up and incite people to participate in protests in the name of ‘justice,’ ‘freedom,’ ‘democracy,’ and ‘march and protest for the environment.’ These subjects tried to inflate and exacerbate sensitive issues that receive attention of public opinion; causing irritation, doubt and discontent among the masses. The polluted environmental incident accidentally became ‘an opportunity’ and ‘a cause’ for these subjects to exploit and raise a hullabaloo to influence public opinions both inside and outside the country, [making people] mis-understand the policies and guidelines of the Party and the State, and the course of socio-economic development of local regions.”

Since the Formosa environmental catastrophe in April 2016, there have been numerous protests in Vietnam to demand a clean environment and fair compensation for victims who lost their livelihoods. Vietnamese authorities have responded by arresting and imprisoning activists who protested, including Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, Tran Thi Nga, Ho Van Hai, Tran Hoang Phuc, Hoang Duc Binh, Nguyen Van Hoa, and many others.

“It is no coincidence that the trial of these six activists is planned on the two-year anniversary of the Formosa environmental disaster,” said Adams. “Instead of silencing critics, the Vietnamese government should order an impartial outside assessment of its clean-up effort and deal directly with citizens in the affected areas to provide fair and transparent compensation for their losses.”

Nguyen Van Dai

Nguyen Van Dai, 48, is a human rights lawyer who supported the formation of many rights groups in 2006, including the Vietnam Independent Union, the pro-democracy Bloc 8406, and the Committee for Human Rights in Vietnam. He took on most of the legal defense for embattled Protestant churches, including the case of Mennonite pastor and former political prisoner Nguyen Hong Quang. He has written a number of articles about democracy and press freedom. He also opened informal classes at his law office for students who wanted to learn about human rights.

For his activities, Nguyen Van Dai has been subject to numerous accounts of harassment, intimidation, interrogation, house arrest, detention, physical assault, and imprisonment. He was disbarred and arrested in March 2007 for “conducting propaganda against the state” under article 88 of the penal code. In May 2007, he was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison. In November 2007, an appeals court reduced his sentence to four years.

After completing his prison sentence, Nguyen Van Dai immediately resumed his human rights activism. In April 2013, he helped found a group called Brotherhood for Democracy, with the goals “to defend human rights recognized by the Vietnam Constitution and international conventions” and “to promote the building of a democratic, progressive, civilized, and just society for Vietnam.”

In May 2014, while in a café in Hanoi along with several rights activists, a group of men appeared, threw a glass at him, and beat him. In January and March 2015, groups of men attacked his house and tried to break down the door. In early December 2015, Nguyen Van Dai gave a talk about human rights enshrined in Vietnam’s Constitution, followed by an open discussion at the Van Loc parish in Nam Dan district, Nghe An province. In the afternoon, he left for Hanoi, accompanied by three fellow activists. Their taxi was stopped by a group of about a dozen men in civilian clothing and wearing surgical masks. Nguyen Van Dai told a reporter at Radio Free Asia that the men dragged him out of the taxi, beat him with wooden sticks on his thighs and shoulders, and then dragged him into their car where the beating continued. The perpetrators eventually stripped him of his jackets and shoes and abandoned him on a beach. The three other activists were also severely beaten by different groups of men. Ten days after the attack, police arrested Nguyen Van Dai when he was on his way to meet an EU delegation in Vietnam for the annual human rights dialogue.

Nguyen Van Dai was charged with conducting propaganda against the state and was held in police detention for 19 and a half months without access to lawyers or legal counsel. In July 2017, the police changed the charge to carrying out activities that aim to overthrow the people’s administration under article 79 of the penal code.

Nguyen Van Dai was awarded a Hellman/Hammett free expression grant in 2007, the Vietnam Human Rights award by the Vietnam Human Rights Network in 2007, and the Human Rights Prize by the German Association of Judges in 2017.
 

Truong Minh Duc

Truong Minh Duc, 58, is a journalist who wrote and published in various mainstream newspapers in Vietnam, including Vanguard (Tien phong), Youth (Thanh nien), Law (Phap luat), and Kien Giang (the newspaper of his hometown). His writing exposed corruption and wrongdoing committed by local authorities involved in land ownership. He called people to help those in difficult situations. In 2006, he joined the pro-democracy Bloc 8406 and the Populist Party, which “aims to participate in the struggle to advance social democratic process and to build a new Vietnam with peace, freedom, prosperity and progress.”

Truong Minh Duc was arrested in May 2007 and charged with “abusing rights to democracy and freedom to infringe upon the interest of the state” under article 258 of the penal code. He was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison. Since completing his prison term in May 2012, Truong Minh Duc resumed writing about rights issues. He advocates for fellow prisoners of conscience who continue to face harassment in prison simply because they refuse to repent. He joined the Free Viet Labor Federation (Lao dong Viet) from 2014-2016 and the Viet Labor Movement (Phong trao Lao dong Viet) in 2016 to campaign for workers’ rights. He is also a member of the Former Vietnamese Prisoners of Conscience (Hoi Cuu Tu nhan Luong tam Viet Nam), and the Brotherhood for Democracy, founded in 2013 “to defend human rights recognized by the Vietnam Constitution and international conventions” and “to promote the building of a democratic, progressive, civilized and just society for Vietnam.” He campaigned against Formosa, a Taiwanese steel company that dumped toxic waste into the sea and caused a massive marine disaster along the central coast of Vietnam.

Due to his human rights activities, Truong Minh Duc encountered harassment, intimidation, house arrest, interrogation, and physical assault. In September 2014, when Truong Minh Duc went with three other activists to the Ministry of Public Security in Hanoi to inquire about the prohibition of labor rights campaigner Do Thi Minh Hanh’s trip abroad, a group of men in civilian clothes attacked and beat him until he lost consciousness. In November 2014, he was severely beaten by a group of eight men, one of whom he identified as a police officer named Hoa, who interrogated and beat him two months earlier at the police station of My Phuoc ward, Ben Cat district (Binh Duong province). In November 2015, the police of Dong Nai province detained and assaulted Truong Minh Duc and labor activist Do Thi Minh Hanh for helping workers at Yupoong Company exercise their rights.

In July 2017, the police arrested Truong Minh Duc and charged him with carrying out activities that aimed to overthrow the people’s administration under to article 79 of the penal code.

Truong Minh Duc was awarded a Hellman/Hammett free expression grant in 2013 and the Vietnam Human Rights award by the Vietnam Human Rights Network in 2010.
 

Nguyen Trung Ton

Nguyen Trung Ton, 46, is an independent Protestant pastor and a blogger whose writings focus on the lack of religious freedom and other rights issues in Vietnam. He has written about local land confiscation and corruption that has driven many peasants into landless situations. He criticized the government’s spending of tax money on festivals instead of building infrastructure, schools, or helping the poor. He supported fellow religious activists including independent Hoa Hao Buddhist leader Le Quang Liem and Mennonite pastor Duong Kim Khai. Nguyen Trung Ton has written about police harassment and assaults against him and his family.

Nguyen Trung Ton has encountered harassment, intimidation, house arrest, interrogation, and physical assault on numerous occasions. In May 2003, men in civilian clothes attacked his home, which he had turned into a house church. In June 2006, he was summoned by the police after attending a church worship service and was assaulted during interrogation. In August 2009, during an independent praying session at a private house, men in civilian clothes accompanied by local officials attacked and beat Nguyen Trung Ton’s family and fellow religious activists. In June 2010, his teenage son Nguyen Trung Trong Nghia was beaten on his way to school by five anonymous men after his father exposed police abuses.

Nguyen Trung Ton was arrested in January 2011 for conducting propaganda against the state and was sentenced to two years in prison. After completing his prison term in January 2013, Nguyen Trung Ton immediately resumed his campaign for human rights and democracy. He wrote a prison memoir that was published in Dan Lam Bao (Citizen Journalism). He advocated for political prisoners to be released. He joined the Former Vietnamese Prisoners of Conscience (Hoi Cuu Tu nhan Luong tam Viet Nam) and the Brotherhood for Democracy, founded in 2013 “to defend human rights recognized by the Vietnam Constitution and international conventions” and “to promote the building of a democratic, progressive, civilized and just society for Vietnam.” He campaigned against Formosa, a Taiwanese steel company that dumped toxic waste into the sea and caused a massive marine disaster along the central coast of Vietnam.

In February 2017, Nguyen Trung Ton and a friend took a bus from Quang Thing commune, Thanh Hoa province to Ba Don town, Quang Binh province. Upon arrival, a group of seven or eight young men in civilian clothing dragged them into a van, took their belongings, stripped their clothes off, covered their heads with their jackets, and beat them repeatedly with iron tubes. The perpetrators later abandoned Nguyen Trung Ton and his friend in a deserted forest in Ha Tinh province. Nguyen Trung Ton was seriously injured and had to undergo an operation at a local hospital.

In July 2017, the police arrested Nguyen Trung Ton and charged him for carrying out activities that aimed to overthrow the people’s administration under article 79 of the penal code.

Nguyen Trung Ton was awarded a Hellman/Hammett free expression grant in 2013.
 

Pham Van Troi

Pham Van Troi, 46, is a blogger who has used various pen names to write about human rights, democracy, land rights, religious freedom, and territorial disputes between China and Vietnam. He was an active member of the Committee for Human Rights in Vietnam, one of the only human rights organizations to ever operate in Vietnam, until all of its leaders were arrested. He also wrote for the dissident bulletin To Quoc (Fatherland). Since 2006, he has encountered numerous cases of harassment, house arrest, physical assault, and interrogation.

Police arrested Pham Van Troi in September 2008 and charged him with conducting propaganda against the state under article 88 of the penal code. In May 2009, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention determined that Pham Van Troi had been wrongfully detained. Despite its conclusion, he was sentenced in October 2009 to four years in prison.

According to the indictment reported by state media, Pham Van Troi wrote “‘A denouncement of the security policy of the State and the Communist Party of Vietnam’ in November 2006 with content that distorts the truth and slanders the State as an oppressor of democracy. In addition, Troi gave interviews via telephone and slander that the police and the masses repressed and beat him.”

After completing his prison term in September 2012, Pham Van Troi immediately resumed his campaign for human rights and democracy. In April 2013, he helped found a group called Brotherhood for Democracy “to defend human rights recognized by the Vietnam Constitution and international conventions” and “to promote the building of a democratic, progressive, civilized, and just society for Vietnam.” He advocated for political prisoners and detainees including for Tran Anh Kim and Nguyen Van Dai to be released. He campaigned against Formosa, the Taiwanese steel company that dumped toxic waste into the sea and caused a marine disaster along the central coast of Vietnam.

Pham Van Troi was placed under intrusive surveillance. Activists and former political prisoners who visited him were harassed, detained, and beaten. In December 2016, men in civilian clothes threw rocks at his house and broke his window.

Police arrested Pham Van Troi in July 2017 and charged him for carrying out activities that aimed to overthrow the people’s administration under article 79 of the penal code.

He was awarded a Hellman/Hammett free expression grant in 2010.
 

Nguyen Bac Truyen

Nguyen Bac Truyen, 50, was an entrepreneur who began to participate in humanitarian activities in the early 2000s. He provided aid to victims of national disasters, orphans, and children in remote areas. His company was among the first in Vietnam that adopted a paternity leave policy. He also wrote and published in overseas news websites about repression, injustice, and human rights violations committed by the government. In 2005, he joined the newly founded People’s Democratic Party (Dang Dan chu Nhan dan) to campaign for political pluralism in Vietnam.

Nguyen Bac Truyen was arrested in November 2006 under article 88 of the penal code for conducting propaganda against the state. According to the indictment reported by state media, prior to the 14th APEC Summit (in November 2006), he “distributed leaflets, gathered people to organize protests, and wrote letters to demand a meeting with the American president upon his visit to Ho Chi Minh City.” In May 2007, the People’s Court of Ho Chi Minh City convicted Nguyen Bac Truyen and sentenced him to four years in prison. In August 2007, the People’s Supreme Court reduced his sentence to three years and six months in prison.

Since being released in May 2010, Nguyen Bac Truyen began to publish writings about his fellow political prisoners and the difficulties and discrimination that former political prisoners face. He has been an outspoken member of the Vietnamese Political and Religious Prisoners Fellowship Association (Hoi Ai huu Tu nhan Chinh tri va Ton giao Viet Nam), which provides support to prisoners and their families. He gave interviews to Radio Free Asia and the BBC about his prison experiences and compiled a detailed list of political prisoners in Vietnam to international human rights organizations. Nguyen Bac Truyen advocated for independent Hoa Hao Buddhist followers who suffer repression simply because they did not join the state-sanctioned church. He collaborated with the Redemptorist church in Ho Chi Minh City to carry out humanitarian activities to invalid veterans who fought for the southern army before 1975. He campaigned against Formosa, a Taiwanese steel company that dumped toxic waste into the sea and caused a massive marine disaster along the central coast of Vietnam.

Because of his pro-rights activities, Nguyen Bac Truyen has encountered harassment, intimidation, intrusive surveillance, interrogation, and physical assault on numerous occasions. In August 2010, police in Ho Chi Minh City detained and questioned him after he publicly called on Vietnam's politburo to release political and religious prisoners. In February 2014, a group of fellow activists went to visit Nguyen Bac Truyen and his wife Bui Thi Kim Phuong in Lap Vo district, Dong Thap province. Traffic police and men in civilian clothes stopped the group and attacked them. Three activists were arrested and charged with “disrupting public order” and sentenced to prison. Two weeks later, Nguyen Bac Truyen went to Hanoi to meet with foreign diplomats to campaign for those who were arrested. On the way to the Australian embassy in Hanoi, a group of men in civilian clothes assaulted him and broke his nose. In September 2016, Nguyen Bac Truyen and his wife were on their way home when a group of men in civilian clothes attacked them and used helmets to beat them.

Police arrested Nguyen Bac Truyen in July 2017 and charged him with carrying out activities that aimed to overthrow the people’s administration according to article 79 of the penal code.

Nguyen Bac Truyen was awarded a Hellman/Hammett free expression grant in 2011 and the Vietnam Human Rights award by the Vietnam Human Rights Network in 2014.
 

Le Thu Ha

Le Thu Ha, 36, became interested in human rights and social issues when she was a student. After graduation, she became an English teacher and participated in civil society activities. In 2013, she joined a group called Brotherhood for Democracy “to defend human rights recognized by the Vietnam Constitution and international conventions” and “to promote the building of a democratic, progressive, civilized, and just society for Vietnam.” She helped translate reports of human rights violations into English for the group. She participated in pro-environment protests against mass tree cutting in Hanoi in March 2015. She joined a small group of activists to broadcast news about human rights abuses on a YouTube channel called “Television of Conscience” (Luong tam TV), established in August 2015 by Brotherhood for Democracy and Former Vietnamese Prisoners of Conscience. She called for the repeal of penal code 258 that punishes peaceful activists for “abusing the rights to democracy and freedom to infringe upon the interests of the state.” Le Thu Ha also went to court during the trials of political activists to show solidarity.

In April 2015, police prohibited Le Thu Ha from leaving Vietnam for a human rights conference in Sweden. In September 2015, she was detained and interrogated for participating in the “Television of Conscience.”

In December 2015, police arrested Le Thu Ha and charged her with conducting propaganda against the state under article 88 of the penal code. She was held in police detention for 19 and a half months without access to lawyers or legal counsel. In July 2017, the police changed her charge to carrying out activities that aimed to overthrow the people’s administration under article 79 of the penal code.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Mining machinery left behind at Eland coal mine at Mwabulambo after closure in 2015. Locals said that before the mine was closed, they were not informed about the closure or how the company intended to mitigate risks stemming from the abandoned mining site.

© 2016 Lauren Clifford-Holmes for Human Rights Watch
Information is key to protecting the health and the livelihoods of people in areas affected by economic development. And that is why a 10 percent cut in the Malawi Human Rights Commission's budget announced recently is such bad news.

The commission plays a key role in the implementation of a new law that gives every citizen of Malawi the right to access information from the government.

Lucia, a 52-year-old mother of five children, is among the people who are waiting for the government to make this right a reality. She lives in a village in rural Malawi, where a coal mining company moved in nearby.

"I didn't know anything about the mining before the machines came in," she said. "They didn't give us any information, they just started digging."

When I was doing research for Human Rights Watch's report on the human rights impacts of mining in Karonga district in northern Malawi, I talked to many women like Lucia who grow cassava, maize and rice to feed their family.

The government has never told them whether pollution from the mines is affecting their fields or what they need to do to protect the health of their children. The government has tested the nearby water only a few times and has never told the community the results.

Information about water quality and soil pollution is crucial for protecting the rights to health, water, food and a healthy environment. This is especially important for people who live in poor and rural areas and are exposed to increased risks, such as communities located near Malawi's mining areas.

But although President Peter Mutharika signed the Access to Information Act more than a year ago, people are still struggling to get access to information that they desperately need.

The Human Rights Commission, an independent institution created to safeguard the rights of Malawians, is to monitor how the government implements the Access to Information Act, which gives every citizen of Malawi the right to access information from the government.

There have been several delays in the implementation of the new law. Now this cut in the 185,000,000 Malawian Kwacha (US$255,000) 2017/2018 budget, just as the commission has taken on this new responsibility, will be a blow to the residents of rural mining regions.

When we talked with the residents in Karonga, we also found that some families had been relocated by the companies without receiving adequate compensation for their houses, fields and land. The families – and in particular women – were not informed about the relocation process or about the compensation the government had required the companies to provide them.

Malawi's extractive industries are still in their infancy. The government and investors should respect rights and minimize the risks faced by communities and natural ecosystems, even as they push for economic development.

As far back as 1992, the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development recognized that access to environmental information, public participation in decision-making over natural resources, and access to justice are key elements of sustainable development. More recently, the UN expert on human rights and the environment has stated that the right to freedom of expression includes the obligation of governments to provide public access to environmental information.

The job of providing information to residents of these areas is going to grow as Malawi pursues economic development. In November, a Mining Ministry official called for increased investment in the mining industry to boost development. He also asked the media "to report things," even if negative. "As government we analyze them and see how we can intervene in order to make sure that mistakes are not repeated," he said.

Several ministry officials have openly admitted that they are not actively providing information to affected communities about the risks of mining. Some said that the government essentially leaves companies to regulate themselves, which violates Malawi's obligations under international human rights law and which has proven disastrous in neighboring countries in southern Africa.

If the Malawian government is serious about improving the lives of its citizens through economic development it needs to step up its efforts to implement the Access to Information Act. That includes adequately funding the Malawi Human Rights Commission so that it can carry out its role as an oversight body of the new law. Malawian nongovernmental organizations are calling for a specific budget for this added task.

The government should also ensure that local communities obtain the information they need to use the provisions of the new law. This would send the right signal to Malawi's development donors, who should support these efforts to realize the rights of marginalized communities.

Katharina Rall is a researcher in the Environment and Human Rights Division of Human Rights Watch.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Esther Mambwe and her family were evicted from Kalengo section by a commercial farmer in 2016. “We didn’t know anything about this [commercial] farm until one day we saw a muzungu [white man] carrying something and he said he was making a boundary,” Mambwe said.

© 2017 Samer Muscati for Human Rights Watch
As activists and policymakers from across the globe gather in Washington D.C. for the World Bank Conference on Land and Poverty, it’s a good time to reflect on how commercial agriculture leaves peasants landless in Zambia.

Esther M. (not her real name), a 50-year old mother of nine, is among them. In 2016 commercial farmers displaced her from land where she had lived for more than three decades. She told Human Rights Watch researchers last year that the commercial farmer gave her no compensation and left her homeless. She feared having to move again if another commercial farmer leased the land she had relocated to. She doesn’t have the money to take her case to court or any administrative body for redress.

Esther M. was among the people interviewed for a  2017 Human Rights Watch  report on how commercial farming has destroyed the livelihoods of rural smallholder farmers in Serenje district of Central Zambia. Commercial farmers in the region had displaced residents– and even forcibly evicted some—from land they had lived on for decades. For the most part, there was no meaningful consultation with the community before the commercial farmers moved in and if they paid any compensation, it was a pittance at best. Women and their families who had farmed the land were left in dire straits without their only source of livelihood.

Many of the rural people displaced by commercial farming in Zambia have deep ties to their homes and land and a legitimate expectation of secure tenure rights. Many families have lived on and used the land for generations under customary tenure – which is recognized by law. Customary land rights are generally not formally registered, though residents may have documentation from their chief that reflects their occupancy and use.

 “Where will we go? This is where I was born, my parents were born here and died here,” Melanie K., who was facing displacement, told Human Rights Watch. “I have ten children and my sister has six. Where do I take them if they remove me from this farm?”  

Poor government planning exacerbates the problem. The government has designated huge tracts of land in some chiefdoms in Serenje district for commercial farming, leaving little land available to relocate displaced residents. In the Muchinda chiefdom, for example, where land is generally owned and controlled by women under the Lala inheritance customs, more than four farm blocks measuring more than 200,000 hectares have been designated for commercial farming. Some residents have been displaced multiple times when commercial farming operations move in or expand.

The UN special rapporteur on the right to food took notice of what is happening.  In a  report to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on her 2017 visit to Zambia she said: “The Government’s policy of turning export-oriented large-scale commercial agriculture into the driving engine of [Zambia’s] national economy, in a situation where land protection is weak, runs the risk of pushing peasants off their land, which in turn could push them out of production, with a severe impact on their right to food.”   

The World Bank conference echoes the Bank’s broader goals – ending extreme poverty and promoting prosperity, but is centered around land governance. Zambia’s government has not been able to reduce poverty and instigate prosperity for people in rural communities. According to one 2017 World Bank document, “coverage of programs targeted to help the poor and vulnerable [in Zambia] remain small relative to the need, as well as compared to regional and international standards.”

Government officials have acknowledged some “administrative setbacks” in monitoring commercial farming operations and protecting the rights of rural residents. They have taken some measures to remedy the situation. In 2017, the lands commissioner, Mr. Kopa Muma, directed provincial officials to ensure that they take sufficient care in allocating land to avoid harming residents. He required provincial officials to report cases in which residents are displaced to his office.

This is a small first step. But the government can do more. It should pay heed to women like Esther M. who implored: “We need help from the government to … find a place where we can raise our children.” The government should do much more to protect rural people’s rights and hold commercial farmers accountable. Zambian authorities and commercial farmers should follow international and national standards in developing plans for and carrying out resettlement and compensation that respect the rights of displaced families.

Commercial farmers should respect the rights and freedoms of communities still living on land allocated to them, including the residents’ right to consult independent counsel.

Commercial farmers should immediately and transparently take adequate measures to assist the residents they have already displaced without following international and national standards.

Companies should not profit by trampling the rights of poor peasants and leaving them impoverished and landless. It needs to stop.

Author: Human Rights Watch, Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Nguyen Viet Dung holds a sign saying he boycotted Vietnam’s national election in May 2016. The sign says, “To vote is a right, not a duty. No knowledge [of the party-nominated candidates] – No vote.” 

© 2016 Nguyen Viet Dung

(New York) – Vietnam should drop all charges against the pro-democracy activist Nguyen Viet Dung and release him immediately, Human Rights Watch said today. The police arrested him in September 2017 and charged him with conducting propaganda against the state. The People’s Court of Nghe An province is scheduled to hear his case on March 28, 2018.

“Vietnam is wasting its time using the discredited charge of ‘propaganda against the state’ to silence dissenters,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “Neither Nguyen Viet Dung nor others calling for reform have shown any intention of giving in to this kind of heavy-handed pressure. All Vietnam is doing is calling attention to its ridiculous intolerance of dissent.”

Vietnam is wasting its time using the discredited charge of ‘propaganda against the state’ to silence dissenters.

Brad Adams

Asia Director

Nguyen Viet Dung, 32, also known as Dung Phi Ho, has a long history of social protest. As a high school student, he had a moment of celebrity, winning a prestigious television quiz show called Road to Mount Olympia and gaining admission to the Hanoi University of Science and Technology with outstanding test scores. But he was expelled after two years for his preoccupation with protests. Nguyen Viet Dung was again in the public eye in April 2015 after an arrest for participating in a peaceful pro-environment protest in Hanoi and charged with disrupting public order under article 245 of the penal code. In 2015, he also reportedly founded a political party called the Vietnam Republican Party to campaign for democracy in Vietnam.

In December 2015 he was put on trial at the People’s Court of Hoan Kiem district (Hanoi). During the trial, his lawyers reportedly asked the court to summon witnesses and produce the “victims” of his alleged crime. The court responded by expelling one of the defense lawyers. His other lawyers walked out in protest. Nguyen Viet Dung was sentenced to 15 months in prison, which a higher court reduced to 12 months in March 2016. He later told a freelance reporter that the police beat him and kicked him in the face and ribs when they arrested him.

After his release in April 2016, Nguyen Viet Dung immediately resumed his political and human rights activities with the motto, “No matter what happens, the final result must be Liberty n’ Separation of Powers.” He participated in multiple protests against Formosa, a Taiwanese steel company that dumped toxic waste and caused a massive marine disaster along the central coast of Vietnam. He voiced support for rights campaigners such as prominent activist Nguyen Van Dai and his colleague Le Thu Ha. He also participated in humanitarian activities, such as helping flood victims in Ha Tinh and Quang Binh provinces in October 2016.

In May 2016, when he was visiting fellow activists in Ho Chi Minh City, a group of men in civilian clothes assaulted him and took him to a police station. The police detained him and interrogated him for two days, then escorted him to the airport and sent him back to Vinh. There three men who did not identify themselves abducted him, pushed him into a car, and, as Nguyen Viet Dung later related, beat him brutally.

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In Vietnam, more than 100 political prisoners are currently locked up simply for exercising their basic rights. Rights bloggers and activists face police harassment, intimidation, surveillance, and interrogation on a daily basis. Activists face long stints of pre-trial detention, without access to lawyers or family in a one-party police state that brooks no dissent.

“They punched me on my head and my arms, which bruised from the beating. They did not explain or say anything. They simply beat me continuously in the car. Not only using their fists, they took off their shoes and used the tips of the shoes to whip me.”

He told a fellow activist that the men held him for a night at a hotel in Nghe An province, where they continued to beat him and forced him to write an incriminating statement, then released him.

In March 2017, police detained several activists for participating in a commemoration of Vietnamese soldiers who died during the Johnson South Reef Skirmish between Vietnam and China in 1988. Nguyen Viet Dung and his friend Do Thanh Van went to the police station in Bach Khoa ward to demand the release of their fellow activists. Men in civilian clothes assaulted them. Do Thanh Van told a reporter at Radio Free Asia:

“Two men rushed in and kicked Dung and he fell down. Afterward, four or five men were ready to attack us. Two men beat Dung. Two men beat me. They used a plastic chair to hit my head. They probably would have continued to beat me, but the hit was hard, and I bled immediately. Blood fell down on my face and my shirt, covering my eyes. Probably because I am a woman, and also because I bled too much, they stopped beating me. They turned to beat Dung.”

Nguyen Viet Dung had been conducting interviews “about the current state of over-charging at schools and the thoughts and wishes of students and their parents in the area where he lived” shortly before the September 2017 arrest, a fellow activist said.

“It is heartbreaking to see the authorities persecute a non-violent activist again and again just because he won’t toe the party line,” Adams said. “Vietnam’s international trade partners and donors should call out the government’s thuggish and shameless behavior.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Indigenous people arrive in Quito after marching for 10 days to protest new mining and water law initiatives, as well as a constitutional reform project that would have allowed for indefinite re-election of the president.

© 2015 José Jácome/EFE

(New York) – The government of former President Rafael Correa abused the criminal justice system to target indigenous leaders and environmentalists who protested mining and oil exploration in the Amazon, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. The groups are operating more freely under President Lenín Moreno, but the abusive prosecutions set in motion by his predecessor remain unaddressed.

The 30-page report, “Amazonians on Trial: Judicial Harassment of Indigenous Leaders and Environmentalists in Ecuador,” shows that prosecutors in three prominent cases failed to produce sufficient evidence to support serious charges or justify the years-long continuation of a criminal investigation. On March 28, 2018, a trial court in Morona Santiago will rule on the case of a Shuar indigenous leader, Agustín Wachapá, for allegedly inciting violence through a Facebook post. On March 16, a court ordered the arrest of Pepe Acacho, another Shuar indigenous leader, to serve a prison sentence over a charge he never had an opportunity to defend himself at trial.

In the third case, a criminal investigation involving six indigenous leaders and an environmentalist has been open for four-and-a-half years, though it has produced no evidence of wrongdoing.

“President Correa lashed out on national TV against indigenous leaders and environmentalists who opposed extractive industry projects in the Amazon, while his Interior Ministry sought to jail their leaders and shut down their organizations,” said Daniel Wilkinson, Americas managing director at Human Rights Watch. “President Moreno has ended the bullying, and the environmental groups are operating more freely, but the abusive prosecutions need to stop.”

Ecuadorian authorities should ensure that none of these leaders serve prison time on charges they cannot substantiate or have not been made to prove in court.

Correa repeatedly denounced the leaders of protests against his environmental policies on his weekly TV show, calling for them to be punished. In 2013, the Correa administration arbitrarily shut down the Pachamama Foundation, one of the country’s most prominent environmental groups. In 2016, it sought to do the same with another leading environmental group, Ecological Action, but backtracked after the move provoked international criticism. Five United Nations special rapporteurs described the attempt to close down the group as part of a “strategy to asphyxiate civil society.”

The Interior Ministry submitted a criminal complaint against Wachapá in 2016, prompting a prosecutor to charge him with “incitement to violence.” Wachapá was arrested and spent four months in pretrial detention in a maximum-security prison, 300 kilometers from his family. Human Rights Watch reviewed the file, and the only piece of relevant evidence is an ambiguous statement on Facebook which, in Human Rights Watch estimation, is much too weak to support the serious charges prosecutors have chosen to bring.

In 2010, a prosecutor charged Acacho with “terrorism” for allegedly inciting violence during a 2009 Shuar protest against a new mining law. In 2013, a trial court found him guilty and sentenced him to 12 years in prison. Human Rights Watch reviewed the trial documents, including transcripts of the testimonies, and found no credible evidence to support Acacho’s conviction on terrorism charges.

President Correa lashed out on national TV against indigenous leaders and environmentalists who opposed extractive industry projects in the Amazon, while his Interior Ministry sought to jail their leaders and shut down their organizations.

Daniel Wilkinson

Managing director, Americas Division

Acacho appealed to the National Court of Justice, which in January 2018 overturned the terrorism conviction, but convicted him of “illegally impeding the free movement of vehicles, people or merchandise” and sentencing him to eight months in prison. He was never actually tried for this offense and did not have adequate reason or opportunity to contest its underlying facts at his trial on terrorism charges. A court ordered his arrest on March 16, hours after his defense lawyer submitted a constitutional challenge that could reverse his conviction. He could be forced to serve prison time for a crime for which he never had the opportunity to defend himself at trial.

In 2013, Correa’s government officials filed a criminal complaint against seven indigenous leaders and environmentalists who protested oil exploration in the Amazon. Correa had responded to an isolated incident of violence in the protest by berating the indigenous leaders and the environmentalist on national television, calling them “bad people, violent people, often corrupt” and calling on his interior minister to investigate them. More than four years later, the criminal investigation remains open, hanging over the activists’ heads, even though it has failed to yield any evidence against them.

Since taking office, Moreno has opened a dialogue with environmentalists, indigenous leaders and other government critics. His administration reinstated the Pachamama Foundation. In contrast to these positive steps, the abusive criminal prosecutions remain unaddressed.

Moreno should work to ensure the appointment of an independent and credible investigative body to examine how judicial authorities and the Attorney General’s Office conducted the cases Human Rights Watch documented and others begun recently under the Correa administration.

“Moreno – as well as judicial and legislative authorities – need to do much more to undo the damage done by Correa’s authoritarian approach to the critics of his environmental policies,” Wilkinson said. “That means putting an immediate end to judicial harassment of indigenous leaders and environmentalists, reversing the harm that has already been done, and taking steps to ensure it can never happen again.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Summary

When President Lenín Moreno took office in May 2017, he inherited an economy heavily reliant on extractive industries and an executive branch that had, during the previous decade, amassed broad powers to curb public debate of its policies on the environment and other pressing issues. Under his predecessor, President Rafael Correa, the government abused these powers to harass, intimidate, and punish Ecuadorians who opposed oil and mining projects that the president endorsed.

When environmental activists and indigenous people mobilized to protest President Correa’s policies, he took to the airwaves to denounce them. In 2013, he issued a presidential decree allowing his administration to arbitrarily shut down civil society organizations—which it did later that year, dissolving the Pachamama Foundation (Fundación Pachamama in Spanish), one of the country’s most prominent environmental groups. In 2016, his administration sought to do the same with another leading environmental group, Ecological Action (Acción Ecológica in Spanish), but backtracked after the move provoked an international outcry, including condemnation by UN experts.

The Correa administration also used the criminal justice system to target environmentalists and indigenous leaders to be prosecuted. Human Rights Watch examined three of the most prominent cases involving indigenous leaders and environmentalists accused of criminal activity by the Correa administration. In two of the cases, Human Rights Watch found that prosecutors did not produce sufficient evidence that supports the serious charges they brought. In the third case, a criminal investigation involving six indigenous leaders and an environmentalist has been kept open for four-and-a-half years even though it has failed to produce any evidence of wrongdoing.

Since taking office, President Lenín Moreno has signaled a change in direction from his predecessor, opening a dialogue with environmentalists, indigenous leaders and other government critics. His administration reinstated the Pachamama Foundation. He replaced the presidential decree that allowed the government to shut organizations down with one that is less far-reaching, but still problematic (the provision used to shut down Pachamama Foundation remains in place.)[1]

Despite these positive steps, the abusive criminal prosecutions examined in this report remain unaddressed. In one case, a baseless conviction on charges of terrorism was overturned by Ecuador’s National Court of Justice—only to be replaced with a conviction for an entirely distinct offense that the accused has never been tried for. And no wider steps have been taken to ensure that the criminal justice system is not abused to target indigenous leaders and environmentalists again in the future.

Cases Examined by Human Rights Watch

José “Pepe” Acacho

Pepe Acacho, a Shuar indigenous leader in Morona Santiago province, was charged with “terrorism” in 2010 for allegedly inciting violence during a 2009 protest by Shuar people against a new mining law. At the time, Acacho was president of the Interprovincial Federation of Shuar Centers (FICSH), an organization that advocates for Shuar people in Ecuador. In 2013, a trial court found him guilty and sentenced him to 12 years in prison.

Human Rights Watch reviewed the trial documents, including transcripts of the testimonies, and found no credible evidence to support Acacho’s conviction.

Acacho called on community members to protest in Spanish language radio interviews—which were presented in court—but he did not say anything in those interviews that could reasonably be construed as incitement to violence.

The only evidence presented by prosecutors in court that Acacho had incited violence came from three Shuar-speaking witnesses who claimed to have listened to recordings of interviews that Acacho did on a Shuar radio in which he urged demonstrators to bring “spears and poison” to the protests. However, the recordings of these interviews were not reproduced in court, and it does not appear as though the court ever had possession of the Shuar-language interview recordings. These three witnesses were connected to government officials and one of them was an employee of a mining company Acacho had opposed as president of the FICSH, raising concerns as to whether they might have faced inappropriate pressure to alter their testimony in favor of the prosecution. A fourth Shuar-speaking witness who testified about the content of the Shuar radio broadcasts, who had neither ties to the government nor the mining company, testified in a completely different manner and said that Acacho had not called for violence.

Acacho lodged an appeal with the National Court of Justice, which in January 2018 overturned the conviction for “terrorism” but convicted him of the lesser crime “illegally impeding the free movement of vehicles, people or merchandises.” Acacho did not necessarily have reason or meaningful opportunity to defend himself against the factual allegations underpinning the lesser charge, because he was not originally charged with that offense and facts relevant to rebutting the charge may not have been relevant to his defense at the original trial. This was in clear violation of his due process rights, under legal standards the court acknowledged and says it applied, but without any indication of its reasoning or how it had applied the standards. Instead, the court concluded that: “the accused exercised their right to defense fully, [by] alleging their innocence for the charge against them.”

On March 16, Acacho’s defense attorney filed an extraordinary protection action with the constitutional court, claiming the sentence undermined his client's constitutional rights. Less than three hours later, the provincial court of Morona Santiago ordered Acacho’s arrest; he will be taken to prison and forced to serve his eight-month sentence whenever police act on the judge’s orders to detain him, unless the constitutional court recognizes his due process rights have been violated and vacates the verdict.

Agustín Wachapá

Agustín Wachapá, a Shuar indigenous leader in the province of Morona Santiago, is being tried for allegedly inciting violence after a clash between police and opponents of a mining project in December 2016. At the time he was arrested, he was president of the FICSH, as Pepe Acacho had been when he was charged with terrorism.

President Correa responded to the December 2016 incident by publicly denouncing several indigenous leaders who opposed the mining project and singling out Wachapá, portraying him as violent. The Correa government quickly moved to shut down Ecological Action, an environment group active in opposing the project.

Following a criminal complaint filed by the Interior Ministry against Wachapá, a prosecutor accused him of “incitement to discord,” and he was promptly arrested. He told Human Rights Watch he spent four months in the maximum-security section of the Latacunga prison, until he was granted provisional release after paying a US$6000 bail in April 2017.

The only evidence that has any arguable probative value in the prosecution’s entire file is a message on Wachapá’s Facebook that he posted after the confrontation took place. Though the writing on Wachapá’s post is ambiguous, in Human Right Watch’s estimation, it was not defensible for the prosecution to bring serious criminal charges solely on the strength of this one weak and doubtful piece of evidence. The charge is, by any reasonable estimation, devoid of meaningful evidentiary support.

Additional evidence includes a radio interview in which Wachapá discussed the Shuar’s pre-colonial history as warriors. The prosecution presented no evidence that could reasonably be construed to show that Wachapá incited violence.

The trial court is scheduled to issue a verdict on March 28, 2018. If found guilty, Wachapá could be sentenced to up to three years in prison.

11th Oil Round Case

Seven indigenous leaders and environmentalists who protested oil exploration in the Amazon in 2013 have been the subject of a criminal investigation that has been kept open for four-and-a-half years even though it has failed to yield probative evidence against them.

On November 28, 2013, indigenous leaders and environmental activists demonstrated outside the Hydrocarbons Secretariat in Quito, where foreign investors were gathered to bid on rights to explore for oil in two million hectares of land in the southeastern Amazon, including the territories of seven indigenous peoples. An incident of violence during the protest prompted a criminal investigation against a demonstrator who was caught on video hitting a foreign businessman on the head with the flat edge of his spear.

President Correa responded to the incident by publicly denouncing the organizers of the protest, and his government promptly shut down the Pachamama Foundation, the prominent environmental group mentioned above that participated in the demonstration.

The Attorney General’s Office then opened a criminal investigation not only against the man who wielded the spear, but also against six prominent indigenous leaders and an environmentalist. Human Rights Watch had access to the case file and found that it contained nothing that could reasonably be construed as evidence that these seven activists had committed crimes.

The law mandates that the prosecutor archive such investigations after two years, but the investigation remains open.

 

Recommendations

The cases detailed in this report show abuse of power by officials and misuse of the criminal justice system to harass indigenous leaders and environmentalists who helped mobilize public protests against government policy.

President Lenín Moreno and the leaders of the Ecuadorian judiciary and national assembly must take steps to end the misuse of the Ecuadorian criminal justice system to harass, intimidate and improperly punish indigenous leaders and environmentalists.

They should ensure that the cases documented in the report—and other cases involving criminal charges against indigenous leaders and environmental activists—are properly handled by the criminal justice system in accordance with international human rights law. Specifically, they should guarantee that:

  • No one serves prison time for a crime for which they have not had an opportunity to defend themselves against at trial;
  • No one is prosecuted in the absence of credible evidence linking them to a crime; and,
  • Criminal investigations are not kept open indefinitely in the absence of credible evidence linking the people being investigated to a crime.

President Lenín Moreno and the leaders of the Ecuadorian judiciary and national assembly should appoint an independent and credible investigative body to examine how judicial authorities and the Attorney General’s Office conducted the cases documented in this report as well as other recent cases involving criminal investigations and prosecutions of indigenous leaders and environmentalists under President Rafael Correa’s administration.

Activists whose rights were violated through abusive, unwarranted criminal prosecutions should receive compensation through the appropriate mechanisms contemplated in domestic law, in accordance with international standards.

 

Methodology

This report is largely based on a review of the court records from each of the three cases.

  • In the case of Pepe Acacho, Human Rights Watch had access to, among others:
    • the October 2, 2009 criminal complaint that prompted the investigation;
    • the September 6, 2010, transcript of the charges hearing;
    • the August 9, 2013, decision of the provincial court of justice with transcripts of the testimonies during the trial (case no. 479-2013);
    • the October 7, 2014, decision of the provincial court of justice in response to Acacho’s appeal (case no. 14111-479-2013), and;
    • the January 15, 2018, decision of the National Court of Justice (trial no. 17721-2014-1796).
  • In the case of Agustín Wachapá, Human Rights Watch had access to, among others:
    • the electronic public records in the proceedings for case no. 14256-2016-00781 and case no. 17711-2017-0092 (made available by the Council of the Judiciary on its website);
    • the report by the forensic expert who retrieved Wachapá’s publication from Facebook (report no. DCP121600496), and;
    • the official summary of the charges hearing from December 21, 2016.
  • In the 11th Oil Round case, Human Rights Watch had access to the file of the criminal investigation in the prosecutor’s office in Quito. The file contained various lists of suspects compiled by police and the prosecutor, in this report Human Rights Watch referred to the last list of suspects that appeared in the file.    

Human Rights Watch also conducted a total of 37 interviews, including with the two activists on trial and two of the suspects targeted by the criminal investigation, their defense lawyers, the chief public defender of Ecuador, a public defender in Quito, the national human rights ombudsman, three assistants of a national congressman, two prosecutors (procurators), four academics, and 18 civil society representatives.

Most of the interviews were conducted in Quito between 5-11 November 2017, and follow-up interviews were conducted over the phone between December 2017 and March 2018. All interviews were conducted in Spanish by Human Rights Watch staff fluent in the language.

All participants were informed of the purpose of the interview and that their accounts might be used publicly. They consented orally. In the cases where interviewees requested that their name remain anonymous, their name has been withheld when they have been quoted.

No interviewee received compensation for providing information.

 

Cases Examined by Human Rights Watch

José “Pepe” Acacho

José “Pepe” Acacho, a Shuar indigenous leader in Morona Santiago province, was charged with “terrorism” in 2010 for allegedly inciting violence during a 2009 protest by Shuar people. Acacho was convicted in 2013. He appealed the verdict to the National Court of Justice, which in 2018 overturned the conviction for “terrorism” and instead convicted him of the lesser crime “illegally impeding the free movement of vehicles, people or merchandises,” for which he was never tried.[2] The court stated its decision did not violate Acacho’s right to defend himself against a new charge, but provided no legal reasoning to justify this assertion.[3] As explained below, Human Rights Watch believes that the new conviction violated Acacho’s due process rights.

In September 2009, while he was serving as president of the Interprovincial Federation of Shuar Centers (FICSH), Pepe Acacho called on Shuar people to protest recently promulgated laws regulating mining and water use. He and other opponents of these laws believed that they would reduce indigenous peoples’ control over natural resources in their ancestral territories. Demonstrators blocked the Upano River bridge, in the city of Macas. On September 30, Acacho met public officials in the city of Sucúa, 23 kilometers away, to discuss the protesters’ demands.[4] According to witnesses who later testified in Acacho’s trial various government officials were indeed present at the meeting, though accounts differ as to exactly who these officials were.[5]

Acacho told Human Rights Watch that he left the meeting believing they had reached an agreement. His understanding was that a government representative who had been present at the meeting was going to consult authorities in Quito to sign off on it.[6]

Acacho gave Human Rights Watch an account of his movements the rest of that evening. He said that he set off by car to Macas around 5p.m. Approximately 30 minutes later, he received calls from friends alerting him to the fact the police were dispersing protestors with tear gas. Between 5:30p.m. and 6p.m. he was informed that a teacher, Bosco Wisum, had been killed. Acacho reached the Sevilla Don Bosco town, on the eastern side of the Upano River, where he saw injured demonstrators being taken away. He decided to remain in Sevilla Don Bosco, where he stayed until 11pm and then returned to Sucúa where he spent the night.[7]

The confrontation on the bridge that day left 38 police officers injured, according to the local chief of police.[8] One demonstrator, Shuar teacher Bosco Wisum, was shot dead.[9] Human Rights Watch was not able to ascertain how many demonstrators were injured.

On October 2, 2009, the local chief of police filed a criminal complaint alleging terrorism, rebellion, and illicit association against “all the demonstrators pertaining to Shuar indigenous organizations, led by José Akachu [sic],” referring to Pepe Acacho.[10] Nearly a year later, in September 2010, a prosecutor charged Pepe Acacho with “terrorism,” alleging that he incited the violence at the Upano River bridge in September 2009 that resulted in Wisum’s death.[11]

The definition of terrorism under Ecuador’s criminal code at the time was broad and vague, criminalizing those who would intend to further “patriotic, social, economic, political, religious, revolutionary, radical, proselytist, racial, localist, regional, etc.” aims. (Indeed, the word “etcetera” is used five times in defining the crime.)[12] The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) has since expressed concern for the application of this law to prosecute human rights defenders, and the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural rights (CESCR) has called on Ecuador to clarify its scope of application.[13]

On February 1, 2011, the day after Acacho finished his term as president of the FICSH, a judge issued a warrant for his arrest and pre-trial detention. Acacho was promptly apprehended and flown to Quito, where he was imprisoned in the García Moreno penitentiary along with two other individuals accused of the same crime.[14] Acacho told Human Rights Watch that they were held with convicted prisoners for eight days.[15] They were released after another judge revoked the pre-trial detention order.[16]

The trial took three years to reach its conclusion. Three weeks before the court reached its verdict, on July 20, 2013, Vice President Jorge Glas hosted the president’s weekly TV show, substituting for Correa, and broadcast a video in which the narrator accused Acacho of “inciting violence, calling on [protesters] to use weapons, to use poison.” Without mentioning Acacho by name, Glas claimed that this incitement was responsible for the death of Wisum.[17]

On August 9, 2013, the trial court in Morona Santiago found Acacho guilty of “terrorism” and sentenced him to 12 years in prison. The court also convicted Pedro Mashiant Chamik, a Shuar man who was at the protest that day, but declared innocent Fidel Kañiras, who had previously been charged with the murder of Bosco Wisum, along with four other men.[18]

Human Rights Watch reviewed the trial documents, including transcripts of the testimonies, and found no credible evidence to support Acacho’s conviction.

Not a single witness testified that Acacho had been present in Macas on the day of the confrontation. On the contrary, the 20 witnesses cited by the court who were present during the confrontation—including the local police chief and 10 police officers—testified that they did not see Acacho in Macas that day.[19] In addition, four other witnesses confirmed that Acacho was at the meeting in Sucúa prior to the confrontation.[20] One witness stated he was in the car, heading back to Macas, when the violence broke out.[21] The sentence cites only one witness who testified that he saw Acacho in the vicinity of Macas—in a car with armed young men on the road that led to Upano River bridge—but even if this testimony were accurate, it still does not place Acacho at the site of the protest or subsequent confrontation and does not establish that he instigated the violence.[22]

The verdict cites five radio presenters and reporters on Spanish-language radio programs who testified that in the days prior to the confrontation, Acacho had appeared on their programs and called on Shuar people to participate in the demonstration. However, none of the five testified that Acacho had incited violence on their programs.[23]

The only witnesses in the trial who claimed they heard Acacho incite violence said that he did so during interviews on Shuar-language radio programs. These were three Shuar speakers who testified that Acacho, during these radio broadcasts, had called on protesters to take to the streets with “spears and poison.”[24] One of the three also alleged that Acacho had “subtly” urged on people to bring “machetes, shotguns, weapons, poison.”[25]

No recordings of the interviews in Shuar were played in court, according to Acacho’s defense lawyer.[26] And indeed, there is no indication in the court records that any recordings of these broadcasts were played during the trial. Moreover, while the court includes in its list of evidence the recordings of the radio broadcasts in Spanish, it does not include the recordings in Shuar, raising questions as to whether the court was even in possession of these recordings.[27]

There are reasons to doubt the credibility of the three witnesses who claimed to have translated the statements in Shuar that Acacho made on the radio. These witnesses’ connections to government officials and a local mining company raises concerns as to whether they faced inappropriate pressures to alter their testimony in favor of the prosecution.[28] Indeed, the only Shuar-speaking witness who was connected to neither testified that Acacho had not incited violence on the radio.

One of the three witnesses testified that he was called to translate Acacho’s statements by the Ministry of Communications (CONATEL), which at the time was headed by Jorge Glas, who later appeared on television, as vice president, accusing Acacho of terrorism before the court had rendered its verdict.[29] This witness said he was “cooperating with the government” because one of his sons had been hurt during the protest and because his wife had been sexually harassed by a group of protestors.[30] Another witness was an employee of a mining company that has a large concession in the province of Morona Santiago, which has been opposed by Acacho and the local indigenous population, who claim it is on their ancestral land.[31] This witness said she had been summoned to translate the recordings by the governor, Sonia Ortega, whom she referred to as a friend.[32] The third witness said he had been summoned to translate Acacho’s message by his employer, a local public official appointed by the governor.[33]

In Ecuador, governors are functionaries of the Interior Ministry.[34] They act as the representative of the president in the provinces. The governor at the time of the 2009 protest and confrontation—and when these witnesses were summoned to translate Acacho’s statements—was Sonia Ortega, whom President Correa had instated in June 2009. In 2013, Ortega was no longer governor and instead was serving as a judicial clerk for the court that tried Acacho.[35] She served as a witness for the prosecution, testifying that she heard Acacho on the radio calling on people to protest (she did not say she heard him call on them to arm themselves).[36]

A fourth Shuar-speaking witness who testified about the content of the Shuar radio broadcasts—who unlike the other three was connected neither to the government nor to mining company—said that Acacho called on people to join the demonstration to defend their territory and its natural resources but did not say that he urged them to arm themselves or protest violently.[37]

Acacho categorically denies the allegations that he incited violence. He told Human Rights Watch that he had only called for peaceful demonstrations and that the witnesses who testified that he had called for violence had mistranslated and misrepresented his message in Shuar. Acacho said that he never urged protestors to bring machetes or shotguns. He said that he used the word “Nanki”, which in Shuar language refers both to the spear as an object and to the positive qualities that a person should embody such as bravery and energy, adding that he never called on protestors to use violence of any kind.[38]

After the verdict, President Correa celebrated the outcome on his nationally broadcast TV show, saying that Acacho’s “irresponsibility” had led to the violence and the death of a demonstrator and that the 12-year prison sentence was justified. [39]

Acacho’s defense lawyer appealed the conviction, asking the courts to apply the new 2014 criminal code, which came into force after the trial. However, in October 2014, an appeals court refused to re-examine whether Acacho’s acts should be considered terrorism under the new code’s definition. Acacho appealed this ruling to the National Court of Justice.[40]

On January 15, 2018, the National Court of Justice threw out Acacho’s terrorism conviction—ruling that the courts had mistakenly applied the anti-terrorism law—and replaced it with a conviction for the lesser crime of “illegally impeding the free movement of vehicles, people or merchandises,” reducing his prison sentence to eight months.[41] It was a crime for which Acacho had never been charged nor tried.

The court justified its decision by recalling its jurisprudence in previous cases where it had modified the charges on appeal. The court described three tests that its decision had to withstand to guarantee that Acacho’s procedural rights and right to defense were upheld, then immediately asserted that it had passed them without any additional reasoning.[42]

Acacho did not necessarily have reason or meaningful opportunity to defend himself against the factual allegations underpinning the lesser charge, because they were not relevant to his defense at the original trial. Because of this and because the court made no effort to address this issue in its ruling, Human Rights Watch believes that the new conviction violated Acacho’s due process rights.

Acacho’s defense attorney filed a petition with the National Court of Justice to clarify the sentence, but on February 22 the court rejected it.[43] On March 16, he filed an extraordinary protection action with the constitutional court, claiming the sentence undermined Acacho’s constitutional rights.[44] Less than three hours later, the provincial court of Morona Santiago ordered his arrest; Acacho will be taken to prison and forced to serve his eight-month sentence whenever police act on the judge's orders to detain him, unless the constitutional court recognizes his due process rights have been violated and vacates the verdict.[45]

Acacho told Human Rights Watch that the ordeal had taken an enormous toll on him and his family. “It destroys you,” he said, recalling the many times that his wife and three children have been approached by strangers: “‘your husband is a terrorist,’ ‘your father is a terrorist,’ ‘he is an instigator’; can you imagine your family being treated this way?” He also stressed the high economic cost that he has incurred whilst defending himself throughout 7 years of trial, having to constantly attend hearings, pay legal fees, and comply with a travel ban that limits his freedom of movement.[46]

Agustín Wachapá

Agustín Wachapá, a Shuar indigenous leader in the province of Morona Santiago, is being tried for allegedly inciting violence through a Facebook post in 2016. At the time, he was president of the Interprovincial Federation of Shuar Centers (FICSH), the same organization Pepe Acacho presided over in 2010 when he was charged with terrorism.

The FICSH had opposed mining concessions in Morona Santiago, in the Ecuadorian Amazon, alleging they encroached on Shuar ancestral territory. The area encompassed by the San Carlos Panantza mining concession is home to 12,289 people, of which 46 percent are of the Shuar nation. [47] ExplorCobres S.A. (EXSA) owns the concession and plans to develop open-pit copper mines.[48] Ecological Action (Acción Ecológica in Spanish), a prominent Ecuadorian environmental organization, had publicly opposed the project and expressed support for Shuar people’s territorial claims.[49]

On December 14, 2016, police and military personnel clashed violently with opponents of the San Carlos Panantza mining project. The violence left one police officer dead and seven injured.[50] President Correa responded by declaring a state of exception throughout the whole province.[51] Three days later, he addressed the issue on his TV show. Correa broadcast a nine-second video clip of an interview with Agustín Wachapá in which he says: “For the Shuar war is a game, to kill and to decapitate….” The clip ended abruptly, cutting him off mid-sentence. Correa referred to the clip as evidence that indigenous leaders who were critical of his government were violent.[52] After showing the clip, Correa said: “they’ve lost all ability to distinguish between right and wrong.”[53]

Wachapá told Human Rights Watch that his statement was taken out of context, that he was in fact referencing Shuar people’s pre-colonial history during an interview at a local radio station and that the interview had also been filmed.[54] The interview took place on December 1, 2016, prior to the violent incident on the San Carlos Panantza mine, and, he added, his remarks were not intended as a commentary about contemporary events.

A day after Correa’s address, Ecological Action called on the government to create a “Peace and Truth Commission” to investigate alleged violations of environmental law and indigenous rights in the context of the San Carlos Panantza mining project.[55] On December 20, only two days later, the vice minister of the interior, Diego Torres Saldaña, requested the Environment Ministry to dissolve the organization. [56] Saldaña accused Ecological Action of inciting violence in Morona Santiago and “deviating from its purported aims.”[57]

Saldaña relied on two decrees issued by President Correa in 2013 and 2015 that gave the executive branch the power to dissolve NGOs if they were found to have “compromise[d] public peace” or engaged in activities that are different from those they identified when registering with the government.[58] Five United Nations special rapporteurs issued a joint statement that described the move to dissolve Ecological Action as part of a “strategy to asphyxiate civil society.”[59] Ecological Action successfully appealed the dissolution in January 2017, after receiving an outpouring of international solidarity.[60]

In addition to moving to dissolve the environmental group, Saldaña also filed a criminal complaint against Wachapá with the Attorney General’s Office. In response to Saldaña’s complaint, on December 21, 2016, a prosecutor charged Wachapá with “incitement to discord.”[61] He cited as evidence a post the indigenous leader had made on Facebook referring to the events of December 14:

The Interprovincial Federation of Shuar Centers ,in the face of the incidents that took place this morning ,where the Ecuadorian army fired on the Shuar nation , declares State of emergency and war between Ecuadorians , asks for unity and the immediate withdrawal of the military from Shuar territory and we do not take responsibility for what happens and we do not acknowledge President Rafael Correa the most corrupt president in the history of Ecuador . from this moment we begin mobilizing in all of the amazon and throughout the country . The Shuar and Achuar People will never give up and will not surrender the mines of our territory. Never retreat. Never give up.

Long live the freedom and courage of the Amazon jungle dammit. [sic][62]

Wachapá was promptly arrested in the town of Sucúa, in Morona Santiago, on December 21. A judge heard the charges and allowed the case to proceed to trial.[63] The next day, Wachapá was transferred to the prison of Latacunga, nearly 300 kilometers away, where he was taken into pre-trial detention.[64] The judge justified the pre-trial detention ruling by referring to Wachapá’s post on Facebook, which he said was “a strong indication that a crime [of incitement to discord] has been committed.”[65]

Agustín Wachapá’s original Facebook post from December 17, 2016.

(Agustín Wachapá’s personal Facebook profile, https://www.facebook.com/awachapa/posts/1512935215400995.)

Wachapá told Human Rights Watch that he was held in the maximum-security section of the Latacunga prison for four months, until April 25, 2017, when he was granted provisional release after paying a US$6000 bail.[66]

Wachapá was charged under article 348 of the Ecuadorian criminal code, which carries a one to three-year prison sentence for those who “foster discord between citizens, by arming them or inciting them to take up arms against each other.”[67]

To support these charges, the prosecution provided the following items—none of which, in Human Rights Watch’s estimation, could reasonably be construed as evidence that Wachapá had armed anyone or incited violence:

  1. A copy of the complaint presented by Torres Saldaña and his statement;[68]
  2. A copy of presidential decree no. 1276 that declared the state of exception;[69]
  3. A police report on the December 14 confrontation at the mine—an incident that took place before Wachapá’s Facebook posting—that did not refer to Wachapá or link him in any way to the event that day;[70]
  4. A police report about the arrest of Agustín Wachapá on December 21, 2016;
  5. The testimony of a radio presenter recounting the December 1, 2016, interview in which, according to Wachapá, he discussed Shuar peoples’ pre-colonial history as warriors;[71]
  6. A screenshot of Wachapá’s posting on Facebook.[72]

There are six items in the prosecution’s case file. Of these, five are of no relevance to the charge of incitement. Neither the presidential decree nor the police report of the December 14 confrontation describe any action committed by Wachapá, and the testimony of the radio presenter relates to a program dated two weeks prior to Wachapá’s Facebook post. The report about Wachapá’s arrest describes him trying to evade police officers, which is not probative that he incited violence.

The sixth piece of evidence advanced by the prosecution is a Facebook post published by Wachapá on December 17, 2016. The post’s writing is ambiguous; it would seem Wachapá, in the name of the FICSH, called for a “state of emergency and war between Ecuadorians” but immediately after also demanded “unity and the immediate withdrawal of the military from Shuar territory.” However, in context, Wachapá’s message can be understood as referring to the state of exception that president Correa had declared three days prior and the subsequent deployment of military personnel in the Morona Santiago province.

Nonetheless, even if Wachapá’s post is read as a call to war despite the context elucidated above, this single Facebook post would constitute the only evidence that has any arguable probative value in the prosecution’s entire file. In Human Right Watch’s estimation, it was not defensible for the prosecution to bring serious criminal charges in this case solely on the strength of this one weak and doubtful piece of evidence. The charge is, by any reasonable estimation, devoid of meaningful evidentiary support.

Wachapá’s trial is scheduled to conclude on March 28, 2018.[73] Under the Ecuadorian criminal code, he could be sentenced to up to three years in prison for the crime of incitement to violence. He remains under a travel ban.

As his family’s primary source of income, Wachapá told Human Rights Watch that the ordeal had “ruined” his family economically.[74] During the time he spent in detention, unable to work, his elder son was forced to abandon university temporarily to provide for his mother and his younger sibling.[75]

11th Oil Round

Seven indigenous leaders and environmentalists who protested oil exploration in 2013 remain subject to a criminal investigation that has failed to yield any evidence against them for over four years.

On November 28, 2013, indigenous and environmental activists demonstrated outside the Hydrocarbons Secretariat in Quito, where foreign investors were gathered to bid on rights to explore for oil in two million hectares of land in the southeastern Amazon, including the territories of seven indigenous peoples.[76]

At the end of the auction, some of the demonstrators accosted a Belarusian businessman and a Chilean diplomat as they left the meeting. Video footage broadcast by local news media shows protesters following the men through the streets and yelling at them.[77] One of the protesters, an indigenous man identified as Patricio Sake by police, is seen in the video hitting the businessman on the head with the flat edge of his spear.[78]

On his TV show on November 30, President Rafael Correa showed a video of the protest and close ups of the faces of indigenous leaders and environmentalists who participated, calling them “violent people, bad people, often corrupt.”[79] Correa repeatedly called upon the interior minister, José Serrano, to investigate “these violent people” and to report back to him.[80] The president singled out the Pachamama Foundation (Fundación Pachamama), one of the country’s most prominent environmental organizations, which had helped to organize the protest. “When we close them down, for clearly getting involved in politicking, then of course they will complain there is no freedom of association,” he said. [81]

Four days later, on December 4, the Ministry of the Environment ordered the closing of the Pachamama Foundation.[82] The ministry relied on a decree issued by President Correa in June 2013 that gave the executive branch the power to dissolve NGOs on the grounds that they have “compromise[d] public peace” or have engaged in activities that are different from those they identified when registering with the government.[83]

The ministry’s order for dissolution stated it was dissolving Pachamama Foundation because its activities “deviated from the purpose for which they were constituted” and quoted a report from the Interior Ministry that stated “representatives of the organizations ‘Pachamama’ and ‘La Hormiga’ began a violent protest, infringing on public order and the physical integrity of the attendees,” without specifying who these members were or what they had done. [84]

In December 2013, the Pachamama Foundation was forced to cease operations. Pachamama was given no advance notice, no real opportunity to challenge the decision, and no choice but to return the funding it had received from international donors and close down its operations.[85]

In addition to shutting down the NGO, the Correa administration also sought criminal charges against leading indigenous and environmental activists present at the protest. Secretary of Hydrocarbons Gustavo Donoso filed a criminal complaint on November 28, 2013, in which he did not identify the alleged culprits but instead pointed to whole organizations as suspects and accused them of allegedly “shoving, threatening and assaulting” the Belarusian businessman. [86] The Secretary referred to “CONAIE, CONFENIAE [and] the Amazonian Women”.[87]

The prosecutor opened a criminal investigation against 10 suspects: the spear-wielding protestor, Patricio Sake; a man with no known affiliation, Eucevio Ruis Santi; a student, Andrea Medina Dalgo, and 7 suspects who were outspoken indigenous leaders and environmental activists.[88] These are:

  • Bartolo Ushigua, then vice president of CONAIE and a Sapara indigenous leader.
  • Franco Viteri, then president of the Confederation of Indigenous Nations of the Ecuadorian Amazon (CONFENIAE, previously known as GONOAE);
  • Gloria Ushigua, coordinator of the Sapara Women’s Association “Ashiñwaka” from Pastaza;
  • Jaime Vargas, then president of the Achuar Nation, currently president of CONAIE;
  • Manuel Humberto Cholando, then president of CONAIE and previously president of the Confederation of Kichwa Peoples of Ecuador (ECUARUNARI);
  • Margoth Escobar, well-known environmental and indigenous rights defender from Pastaza;
  • Patricia Gualinga, indigenous rights defender, leader of the Kichwa people of Sarayaku and a witness in the case her people won against the Ecuadorian state at the Inter-American Court for Human Rights in 2012 for widespread damages caused by oil exploration in their territory.

Human Rights Watch was able to review the case file. The Quick Solutions Unit (Unidad de Soluciones Rápidas in Spanish) of the Prosecutor’s Office is in charge of investigating it.[89] More than four years after the investigation started, the file contained only the following items:

  • Press clippings from various news outlets that reported on the protest, without specific information about the suspects;
  • Screenshots of Facebook postings by the Pachamama Foundation and several other environmental organizations calling on the public to join the protest—none of which contain language that could be reasonably construed as incitement to commit violence;
  • Copies of close-up photographs of the faces of the suspects, with no indication of where or when they were taken;
  • Written testimony by three police officers who claim they had been yelled at and shoved by protesters, but do not mention any of the indigenous or environmental activists, nor indicate the identity of the persons who did the yelling and shoving.

In Human Rights Watch’s estimation, none of these items could reasonably be construed as evidence that the 7 suspects had committed crimes.

Under article 585 of the Ecuadorian criminal code, the prosecutor should have archived the investigation in 2015, at most two years after it was opened if he did not press charges.[90] Nonetheless, more than 4 years later, the criminal investigation remains open.

 

Ecuador’s Human Rights Obligations

The Rights of Victims of Abusive Prosecutions

Under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Ecuador ratified in 1969, the state must uphold the right of every person “be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law.”[91] Ecuador must also ensure every accused person’s right to “a fair and public hearing by a competent, independent and impartial tribunal established by law” in the determination of any criminal charge against him/her.[92]

Furthermore, “when a person has by a final decision been convicted of a criminal offence and when subsequently his conviction has been reversed or he has been pardoned on the ground that a new or newly discovered fact shows conclusively that there has been a miscarriage of justice, the person who has suffered punishment as a result of such conviction shall be compensated according to law.”[93]

The ICCPR also mandates that “no one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest or detention.”[94] In the event a person is arbitrarily deprived of their liberty by an unlawful arrest or detention, they “shall have an enforceable right to compensation.”[95]

Under the American Convention on Human Rights (ACHR), which Ecuador ratified in 1977, the state is also under an obligation to protect the right of every person “to be compensated in accordance with the law in the event he has been sentenced by a final judgment through a miscarriage of justice.”[96]

International Standards for Independent and Impartial Courts

The United Nations Human Rights Committee, which assesses state compliance with the ICCPR and provides authoritative interpretations of the treaty’s provisions, has called on States to “take specific measures guaranteeing the independence of the judiciary, protecting judges from any form of political influence in their decision-making.”[97] The Committee has qualified “the requirement of competence, independence and impartiality of a tribunal” as “an absolute right that is not subject to any exception.”[98]

Regarding the role of judges in upholding the requirement of impartiality, the Committee has established that they must not “act in ways that improperly promote the interests of one of the parties to the detriment of the other.”[99]

International Standards for Prosecutors

The UN Guidelines on the Role of Prosecutors note that “prosecutors shall not initiate or continue prosecution, or shall make every effort to stay proceedings, when an impartial investigation shows the charge to be unfounded.”[100]

International Standards of Protection for Environmental Human Rights Defenders

International norms recognize that states have a responsibility to protect and enable the work of human rights defenders.[101] In addition, the special procedures created by the United Nations Human Rights Council have contributed to developing standards of protection specifically for environmental human rights defenders (EHRDs).

The UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders has underlined the “unprecedented risks” faced by environmental human rights defenders, referring to the “growing number of attacks and murders of environmental defenders”.[102] The special rapporteur called on states to “reaffirm and recognize the role of environmental human rights defenders and respect, protect and fulfil their rights” as well as “ensure a preventive approach to the security of environmental human rights defenders by guaranteeing their meaningful participation in decision-making and by developing laws, policies, contracts and assessments by States and businesses [sic].”[103]

In March 2018 the special rapporteur on human rights and the environment presented to the Human Rights Council the synthesis of his work over the course of his mandate: a set of framework principles “to facilitate implementation of the human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment”.[104] Crucially, framework principle 4 calls upon states to “provide a safe and enabling environment in which individuals, groups and organs of society that work on human rights or environmental issues can operate free from threats, harassment, intimidation and violence.”[105]

In Kawas Fernández v. Honduras, a case concerning violence against EHRDs, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, determined that “the States have the duty to provide the necessary means for human rights defenders to conduct their activities freely; to protect them when they are subject to threats in order to ward off any attempt on their life or safety; to refrain from placing restrictions that would hinder the performance of their work, and to conduct serious and effective investigations of any violations against them, thus preventing impunity.”[106]

Building on these standards, states in Latin America and the Caribbean adopted on March 4, 2018, the Regional Agreement on Access to Information, Public Participation, and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters of Latin American and Caribbean Countries (LAC P10). This international treaty establishes specific standards of protection for environmental human rights defenders (EHRDs).[107] Ecuador was one of the 24 countries that negotiated the agreement and adopted it by consensus. The standards of protection consist of three elements: an enabling environment for the work of EHRDs; measures to recognize and promote the work of EHRDs, including by upholding freedom of expression and assembly; and measures to prevent, investigate and sanction attacks or threats against EHRDs.[108]

 

Acknowledgments

This report was written by Luciana Téllez-Chávez, Finberg Fellow with the Americas and Environment and Human Rights divisions, based on research she conducted under the supervision of Tamara Taraciuk Broner, Americas senior researcher. It was reviewed and edited by Daniel Wilkinson, Americas managing director; Marcos Orellana, Environment and Human Rights director; Christopher Albin-Lackey, senior legal advisor; and Joseph Saunders, deputy program director. The report was prepared for publication by Rebecca Rom-Frank, publications coordinator, Fitzroy Hepkins, administrative manager; and José Martínez, senior administration coordinator. It was translated into Spanish by Gabriela Haymes. Americas division associate Delphine Starr provided logistical and editing support.

Human Rights Watch would like to thank the indigenous leaders, environmentalists, criminal defense lawyers, judicial authorities, public officials, and academics who generously shared their insights and provided essential legal documentation in the hopes of ending miscarriages of justice and strengthening Ecuador’s justice system.

 

[1] Executive Decree no. 193, October 23, 2017, http://www.elcomercio.com/uploads/files/2017/10/23/Decreto_No._193_20170... (accessed March 9, 2018), article 19(1). 

[2] Código Penal, 1971, https://www.oas.org/juridico/mla/sp/ecu/sp_ecu-int-text-cp.pdf (accessed March 13, 2018), art. 129.

[3] Prosecutor v. Acacho González José Luis, National Court of Justice of Ecuador, judgment of January 15, 2018, case no. 1772120141796, pp.14-15.

[4] Human Rights Watch interview with Julio César Sarango, criminal defense attorney, Quito, November 8, 2018 and Human Rights Watch telephone interview with José “Pepe” Acacho, January 16, 2018.

[5] Note: the case judgment includes the testimonies of different witnesses introduced by the prosecution and the defense. Prosecutor, Members of the National Police and Bosco Taisha Wisuma Chapaik v. Acacho et al., Provincial Court of Justice of Morona Santiago, judgment of August 9, 2013, case no. 0479-2013 (witnesses Julian Matias Larrea Arias, p.72; Miguel Alcides Torres Sarmiento, p. 70 and Wilson Medardo Cabrera Riera, p.62).

[6] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with José “Pepe” Acacho, January 16, 2018.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Criminal complaint presented to the provincial prosecutor’s office of Morona Santiago by Colonel Oswaldo Chérrez de Cueva on October 2, 2009.

[9] Bosco Wisum es símbolo de lucha para amazónicos, El Universo, October 4, 2009, https://www.eluniverso.com/2009/10/04/1/1355/bosco-wisum-simbolo-lucha-a... (accessed March 9, 2018).

[10] Criminal complaint presented to the provincial prosecutor’s office of Morona Santiago by Colonel Oswaldo Chérrez de Cueva on October 2, 2009.

[11] Prosecutor and Members of the National Police v. Acacho González Pepe Luis et al., Provincial Court of Morona Santiago, Case no. 85-2010, Charges Hearing, September 6, 2010.

[12] Código Penal, 1971, https://www.oas.org/juridico/mla/sp/ecu/sp_ecu-int-text-cp.pdf (accessed March 8, 2018), art. 160-A.

[13] Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, “Criminalization of the Work of Human Rights Defenders,” December 31, 2015, http://www.oas.org/en/iachr/reports/pdfs/criminalization2016.pdf (accessed March 8, 2018), p. 72; United Nations Committee on Social, Economic and Cultural Rights, “Final Observations of the Committee on the third report of Ecuador, approved by the Committee on Social Economic and Cultural Rights in its forty-ninth period (14 to 30 November 2012),” E/C.12/ECU/CO/3, November 30, 2012. http://www2.ohchr.org/english/bodies/cescr/docs/E.C.12.ECU.CO.3_sp.pdf (accessed March 8, 2018), para. 10.

[14] “Pepe Acacho fue detenido esta mañana,” Ecuador Inmediato, February 1, 2011, http://www.ecuadorinmediato.com/index.php?module=Noticias&func=news_user... (accessed March 9, 2018).

[15] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with José “Pepe” Acacho, January 16, 2018.

[16] Survival, “Protestas en Ecuador por la detención de un líder indígena,” February 8, 2011,  https://www.survivalbrasil.org/noticias/6981 (accessed March 8, 2018); El Tiempo, “Jueza ordena liberación de tres indígenas acusados de terrorismo,” El Tiempo, February 8, 2011, http://www.eltiempo.com.ec/noticias/ecuador/4/251250/jueza-ordena-libera... (accessed March 8, 2011); El Universo, “Jueza da la razón a indígenas, detenciones fueron ‘capricho,’” El Universo, February 9, 2011, https://www.eluniverso.com/2011/02/09/1/1355/jueza-da-razon-indigenas-de... (accessed March 8, 2018); El Tiempo, “Dirigentes shuar están libres,” El Universo, February 9, 2011, http://www.eltiempo.com.ec/noticias/ecuador/4/251308/dirigentes-shuar-es... (accessed March 8, 2018); El Universo, “Jueza acepta pedido de hábeas corpus a Pepe Acacho y dos dirigentes shuar,” El Universo, https://www.eluniverso.com/2011/02/08/1/1355/jueza-ordena-liberacion-aca... (accessed February 8, 2011).

[17] “Enlace Ciudadano Nro. 331 desde la parroquia Febres Cordero – Guayaquil,” July 20, 2013, video clip, YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=209q6T-1kCE (accessed March 8, 2018). 

[18]Prosecutor, Members of the National Police and Bosco Taisha Wisuma Chapaik v. Acacho et al., Provincial Court of Justice of Morona Santiago, judgment of August 9, 2013, case no. 0479-2013.

[19] Ibid. (witnesses Dora Marisol Ortiz Garay, p. 19; Galo Humberto Molina Nieto, p. 19 ; witness Nelson Medardo Juanga López, p. 19; Laura Beatriz Martinez Nieves, p. 25 ; Miguel Arturo León Crespo, p. 25; Manuel Eduardo Riofrío Bravo, p. 26; Wilson Efren Ortiz Robles, p. 26; Galo Patrick Pichama Jembecta, p.32; Luis Enrique Castillo Guamán, p.41 ; police officer Freddy Fernando Tapia Paladios, p. 43; police officer Fausto Lenin Salinas Samaniego, p.45 ; police officer Luis Alonso Chimbolema Chacha, p.48; police officer Henry Santiago Vaca Benalcazar, p.51; police officer Juan Pablo Iñiguez Guerrero, p. 52; police officer César Danilo Chamorro Lope, p. 53;  police officer Roberto Carlos Arciniegas Pozo, p. 53; police officer Alfredo Patricio Chuquin Faringo, p. 54; police officer Giovanny Javier Leon Gualli, p. 55; police officer Willian Anibal Rocha Angamarca, p. 56; Colonel Oswaldo Arturo Chérrez de la Cueva (chief of police), p. 59).

[20] Ibid. (witnesses Julian Matias Larrea Arias, p.72; Wilson Ortiz, pp. 26-27; Samuel Yakum Shimpiu, p. 97; Oswaldo Mankash Shimpis, p. 76).

[21] Ibid. (witness Julian Matias Larrea Arias, p.72).

[22] Provincial Court of Justice of Morona Santiago, Prosecutor, Members of the National Police and Bosco Taisha Wisuma Chapaik v Acacho et al, judgment of August 9, 2013, case no. 0479-2013 (witness Galo Bonifacio Pichama Aztuchi, p. 28)

[23] Ibid. (witnesses Carlos Galarza, p. 22; César Augusto Correa, p. 23; Laura Martínez, p. 25; Manuel Eduardo Riofrío Bravo, p. 26; Wilson Medardo Cabrera Riera, p. 62).

[24] Ibid. (witnesses Martha Masana Kajekai, pp. 36-37; Rubén Celestino Pitiur Mamamt, pp. 37-39; Ignacio Roberto Chalco Nase, p.35).

[25] Ibid. (witness Rubén Pitiur Mamant, pp. 38-39).

[26] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Julio César Sarango, criminal defense attorney, March 13, 2018.

[27] Prosecutor, Members of the National Police and Bosco Taisha Wisuma Chapaik v. Acacho et al., Provincial Court of Justice of Morona Santiago, judgment of August 9, 2013, case no. 0479-2013, p.3.

[28] Ibid. (witnesses Martha Masana Kajekai, pp. 36-37; Rubén Celestino Pitiur Mamamt, pp. 37-39; Ignacio Roberto Chalco Nase, p.35).

[29] “Enlace Ciudadano Nro. 331 desde la parroquia Febres Cordero – Guayaquil,” July 20, 2013, video clip, YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=209q6T-1kCE (accessed March 8, 2018).

[30] Prosecutor, Members of the National Police and Bosco Taisha Wisuma Chapaik v. Acacho et al., Provincial Court of Justice of Morona Santiago, judgment of August 9, 2013, case no. 0479-2013, (witness Rubén Pitiur Mamant, pp. 38-39).

[31] Ibid. (witness Martha Masana Kajekai, pp. 36-37).

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid. (witness Ignacio Roberto Chalco Nase, p.35).

[35] Ibid. (witness Sonia Carmita Ortega Mosquera, p.13).

[36] Prosecutor, Members of the National Police and Bosco Taisha Wisuma Chapaik v. Acacho et al., Provincial Court of Justice of Morona Santiago, judgment of August 9, 2013, case no. 0479-2013 (witness Sonia Carmita Ortega Mosquera, p. 13).

[37] Ibid. (witness Jorge Jimbiquiti Pandama Tiquisu, p. 40).

[38] “Ecuador: Courts Stalling on Protester Appeals”, Human Rights Watch news release, July 21, 2015, https://www.hrw.org/news/2015/07/21/ecuador-courts-stalling-protester-ap...; Human Rights Watch telephone interview with José “Pepe” Acacho, January 16, 2018.

[39] Rafael Correa hosted a TV Show called Citizens’ Connection (Enlace Ciudadano in Spanish) between May 20, 2007 and May 20, 2017. It aired every Saturday between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. through two state-owned TV stations and 54 radio stations. The president would address ordinary citizens, recount the achievements of his administration, interrogate ministers and berate his critics, amongst others. Correa aired 523 episodes in total throughout his two terms in office.; “Ecuador: Courts Stalling on Protester Appeals”, Human Rights Watch news release, July 21, 2015, https://www.hrw.org/news/2015/07/21/ecuador-courts-stalling-protester-ap....

[40] “Ecuador: Courts Stalling on Protester Appeals,” Human Rights Watch news release, July 21, 2015, https://www.hrw.org/news/2015/07/21/ecuador-courts-stalling-protester-ap....

[41] Código Penal, 1971, https://www.oas.org/juridico/mla/sp/ecu/sp_ecu-int-text-cp.pdf (accessed March 13, 2018), art. 129.; Prosecutor v. Acacho González José Luis, National Court of Justice of Ecuador, judgment of January 15, 2018, case no. 1772120141796.

[42] Prosecutor v. Acacho González José Luis, National Court of Justice of Ecuador, judgment of January 15, 2018, case no. 1772120141796, pp.14-15.

[43] Human Rights Watch online communication with Pepe Acacho, February 22, 2018.

[44] Writ of acknowledgment of extraordinary protection action, March 16, 2018, case no. 17721-2014-1796 (receipt of acknowledgment at 11:40 a.m.); Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Julio César Sarango, criminal defense attorney, March 21, 2018.

[45] Ordinance of the Provincial Court of Morona Santiago, March 16th, 2018 (issued at 2:48 p.m.); Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Julio César Sarango, criminal defense attorney, March 21, 2018.

[46] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with José “Pepe” Acacho, January 16, 2018.

[47] Inter-American Commission for Human Rights, 163rd Period of Hearings, “Ecuador: Industrias Extractivas y Pueblos Indígenas”, July 7, 2017, video clip, YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zCRTamwJYqQ\ (accessed March 9, 2018).

[48] Mining Ministry, “Proyecto San Carlos Panantza”, http://www.mineria.gob.ec/proyecto-san-carlos-panantza/ (accessed March 9, 2018).

[49] Acción Ecológica, "El festín minero y el proyecto Panantza San Carlos Namkims una nueva víctima de la minería y las empresas chinas en Ecuador", August 17, 2016, http://www.accionecologica.org/editoriales/1961-2016-09-06-16-05-19 (accessed March 9, 2018).

[50] AFP, "Decretan estado de excepción en Morona Santiago", El Universo, December 15, 2016, http://www.eluniverso.com/noticias/2016/12/15/nota/5955001/decretan-esta... (accessed March 9, 2018).

[51] Executive Decree no. 1276, December 14, 2016 http://portal.corteconstitucional.gob.ec/Raiz/2017/003-17-DEE-CC/REL_SEN... (accessed March 9, 2018).

[52] “Enlace Ciudadano 505, con el Presidente Rafael Correa desde Quito-Pichincha,” December 17, 2016, video clip, YouTube

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4Q4ltUqhoYg (accessed March 8, 2018).

[53] Ibid.

[54] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Agustín Wachapá, January 24, 2018.

[55] Acción Ecológica, “Sobre lo ocurrido en Morona-Santiago: Necesitamos un baño de paz y verdad con la naturaleza”, December 18, 2016, http://www.accionecologica.org/editoriales/2048-2016-12-19-03-07-15 (accessed March 8, 2018).

[56] Interior Ministry, “Solicitud e extinción y disolución e Organización Social Corporación Acción Ecológica”, Oficio No. MDI-VSI-2016-00033, December 19, 2016, http://www.accionecologica.org/images/2005/solicitud_de_extincion_del_Mi... (March 8, 2018). 

[57] Interior Ministry, Informe No. MDI-CGAJ-2016-261, December 19, 2016, http://www.accionecologica.org/images/2005/informe_juridico_del_MAE.pdf (accessed March 8, 2018).

[58] Executive Decree no. 16, “Reglamento para el Funcionamiento del Sistema Unificado de Información de las Organizaciones Sociales y Ciudadanas”, June 4, 2013, http://www.elcomercio.com/uploads/files/2017/10/23/Decreto-16.pdf; Executive Decree no. 739, "Reglamento Sistema Unificado Información de Organizaciones Sociales", August 21, 2015, http://www.industrias.gob.ec/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/REGLAMENTO-ORGAN..., (accessed March 9, 2018), art. 22.

[59] Special rapporteur on freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association, special rapporteur on freedom of expression, special rapporteur on human rights defenders, special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, “Ecuador: UN Experts condemn repressive measures against human rights organizations,” December 30, 2016, http://www.ohchr.org/SP/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=21065&L... (accessed March 8, 2018). 

[60] Adriana Noboa, “Acción Ecológica cree inviable una posible apelación a resolución de Ambiente”, El Comercio, January 12, 2017, http://www.elcomercio.com/tendencias/ministeriodelambiente-niega-disoluc... (accessed March 8, 2018).

[61] Attorney General, Torres Saldaña Diego José, Prosecutor of Morona Santiago v. Wachapá Atsasu Jimpikit Agustin, Charges Hearing, Gualaquiza Judicial Unit, December 21, 2016.

[62] Human Rights Watch provided a literal translation of Wachapá's original post on Facebook.

[63] Attorney General, Torres Saldaña Diego José, Prosecutor of Morona Santiago v. Wachapá Atsasu Jimpikit Agustin, Hearing Summary, Gualaquiza Judicial Unit, December 22, 2016.

[64] Ibid.

[65] Ibid.

[66] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Agustín Wachapá, January 24, 2018.

[67] Código Orgánico Integral Penal, 2014, http://www.justicia.gob.ec/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/c%C3%B3digo_org%C3... (accessed March 14, 2018) art. 348.

[68]  Attorney General, Torres Saldaña Diego José, Prosecutor of Morona Santiago v. Wachapá Atsasu Jimpikit Agustín, Trial Hearing Summary, Gualaquiza Judicial Unit, September 18, 2017.

[69] Ibid.

[70] Ibid.

[71] Ibid.

[72] Ibid.

[73] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Agustín Wachapá, January 24, 2018; Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Julio César Sarango, criminal defense attorney, March 21, 2018.

[74] Ibid.

[75] Ibid.

[76] Sebastián Mantilla, "XI Ronda Petrolera", El Comercio, November 28, 2012, http://www.elcomercio.com/opinion/xi-ronda-petrolera.html (accessed March 9, 2018); Amazon Watch, "Ecuadorian Government Responds with Crackdown Following 11th Round Failure", December 5, 2013, http://amazonwatch.org/news/2013/1205-ecuadorian-government-responds-wit... (accessed March 9, 2018); Pachamama Alliance, https://www.pachamama.org/advocacy/fundacion-pachamama (accessed March 9, 2018).

[77] El Ciudadano, “EC350: Oposición con barbarie y violencia contra la 11 Ronda Petrolera y un empresario de Belarús”, November 30, 2013, video clip, YouTube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O2kIyoTl9kc (accessed March 14, 2018).

[78] Ibid., min 2:55.

[79] "Enlace Ciudadano 350 desde Arenillas, El Oro", December 8, 2014, video clip, YouTube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WGxXXViKVa0 (accessed March 9, 2018), min 03:26-03:28.

[80] Ibid. min 03 :23.

[81] Ibid., min. 03:29.

[82] Environment Ministry, “Se disuelve la Fundación Pachamama, tras comprobarse que la ONG violó el Reglamento de Organizaciones Sociales”, December 4, 2013, http://www.ambiente.gob.ec/se-disuelve-la-fundacion-pachamama-tras-compr... (accessed March 14, 2018).

[83] Executive Decree no. 16, “Se expide reglamento para el funcionamiento del sistema unificado de información de las organizaciones sociales y ciudadanas”, June 4, 2013, https://minka.presidencia.gob.ec/portal/usuarios_externos.jsf (accessed March 14, 2018).

[84] Environment Ministry, Acuerdo no. 125, December 4, 2013, http://www.ministeriointerior.gob.ec/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/acuerdo_... (accessed March 14, 2018) and Interior Ministry, Oficio No. MDI-VSI-2013-00030 quoted in Environment Ministry, Acuerdo no. 125, December 4, 2013; Environment Ministry, "Se disuelve la Fundación Pachamama, tras comprobarse que la ONG violó el Reglamento de Organizaciones Sociales", December 4, 2013, http://www.ambiente.gob.ec/se-disuelve-la-fundacion-pachamama-tras-compr... (accessed March 9, 2018).

[85] Daniel Wilkinson, “Environmentalists under Siege”, Foreign Affairs, August 27, 2015, https://www.hrw.org/news/2015/08/27/environmentalists-under-siege-ecuador (accessed March 14, 2018).

[86] Investigación Previa no. 170101813115127, Human Rights Watch reviewed this file in the prosecutor’s office in Quito; it contained the complaint submitted by Secretary Donoso.

[87] Ibid. CONAIE refers to the Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Ecuador (Confederación de Nacionalidades Indígenas del Ecuador in Spanish), CONFENIAE refers to the Confederation of Indigenous Nations of the Ecuadorian Amazon (Confederación de las Nacionalidades Indígenas de la Amazonia Ecuatoriana in Spanish).

[88] Investigación Previa no. 170101813115127, Human Rights Watch reviewed this file in the prosecutor’s office in Quito.

[89] Investigación Previa no. 170101813115127, Human Rights Watch reviewed this file in the prosecutor’s office in Quito.

[90] Código Orgánico Integral Penal 2014, http://www.justicia.gob.ec/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/c%C3%B3digo_org%C3... (accessed March 14, 2018), art. 585. Human Rights Watch also consulted two Ecuadorian legal experts—both practicing criminal defense lawyers and academics—who confirmed this would be the appropriate course of action for the prosecutor.

[91] United Nations Treaty Collection, Status of Treaties: International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights https://treaties.un.org/pages/ViewDetails.aspx?src=IND&mtdsg_no=IV-4&cha... (accessed March 8, 2018); International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), adopted December 19, 1966, G.A. Res. 2200A (XXI), 21 U.N. GAOR Supp. (No. 16) at 52, U.N. Doc A/6316 (1966), 999 U.T.S. 171, entered into force March 23, 1976, ratified by Ecuador on March 6, 1969, Article 14 para. 1.

[92] ICCPR, art. 14(2).

[93] ICCPR, art. 14(6).

[94] ICCPR, art. 9(1).

[95] ICCPR, art. 9(5).

[96] American Convention on Human Rights (“Pact of San José, Costa Rica”), adopted November 22, 1969, O.A.S. Treaty Series No. 36, 1144 U.N.T.S. 123, entered into force July 18, 1978, reprinted in Basic Documents Pertaining to Human Rights in the Inter-American System, OEA/Ser.L.V/II.82 doc.6 rev.1 at 25 (1992), ratified by Ecuador in August 12, 1977, art. 10 http://www.oas.org/dil/treaties_B-32_American_Convention_on_Human_Rights... (accessed March 8, 2018).

[97] U.N. Human Rights Committee, General Comment No. 32, Article 14: Right to equality before the courts and tribunals and to a fair trial, CCPR/C/GC/32 (2007), p. 5, para 19 https://www.icj.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/Human-Rights-Committee-Ge... (accessed March 8, 2018).

[98] Ibid., p. 5, para. 19.

[99] Ibid., p. 6, para. 21.

[100] Eight United Nations Congress on the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders, UN Guidelines on the Role of Prosecutors, adopted on September 7, 1990, https://www.icj.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/UN-Guidelines-role-prosec... (accessed March 8, 2018), art. 14.

[101] See United Nations General Assembly, “Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms”, A/RES/53/144, March 8, 1999, http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Issues/Defenders/Declaration/declaration.pdf (accessed March 8, 2018), art.12.

[102] Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, “Violence against environmental defenders – New UN major report urges zero-tolerance”, October 21, 2016, http://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=20730&L... (accessed March 9, 2018).

[103] Situation of human rights defenders, August 3, 2016, https://documents-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/N16/247/09/PDF/N1624709.pd... (accessed March 9, 2018), p. 25.

[104] Report of the Special Rapporteur on the issue of human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment, January 24, 2018, A/HRC/37/59, https://documents-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/G18/017/42/PDF/G1801742.pd... (accessed March 9, 2018), p.3, para.7.

[105] Ibid., p.9.

[106] Inter-American Court of Human Rights, Kawas-Fernández Case, Judgment of April 3, 2009, Inter-Am. Ct.H.R., (Ser. C) No. 196 (2009) http://www.corteidh.or.cr/docs/casos/articulos/seriec_196_ing.pdf (accessed March 8, 2018), para. 145.

[107] Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), “Latin America and the Caribbean Adopts Its First Binding Regional Agreement to Protect Rights of Access in Environmental Matters”, March 4, 2018, https://www.cepal.org/en/pressreleases/latin-america-and-caribbean-adopt... (accessed March 8, 2018); Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), “Countries Agree on Protection of Defenders of Human Rights in Environmental Matters during Negotiation of Regional Treaty”, December 1, 2017, https://negociacionp10.cepal.org/9/en/news/countries-agree-protection-de... (accessed March 8, 2018).

[108] Regional Agreement on Access to Information, Public Participation and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters in Latin America and the Caribbean, March 4, 2018, art.9. The text of the agreement was distributed in the last negotiating session and is on file with the author.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Discarded pesticide containers in Brazil.

© 2018 Human Rights Watch
Last month I visited a small rural community in northern Brazil to see how pesticides affect people in the countryside. Brazil, an agricultural powerhouse of industrial farming, is one of the world’s largest users of pesticides. Crops like soy, corn, cotton, and sugar cane are farmed using enormous quantities of pesticides: close to 400,000 tons a year. Of the 10 most widely used pesticides in Brazil, 4 are banned in Europe, indicating how hazardous several are considered by some standards.

Residents I met were gripped with fear about the harm the pesticides might be doing and about retaliation if they speak out. People asked me not to publish the community’s name –  they said the farmer who owned the surrounding plantation had threatened a community member for organizing a petition to reduce his pesticide spraying. The farmer’s plantation extends up to people’s houses, their small gardens, and a small football field. The farmer’s fields end only 5 meters from the well the community uses for drinking water.

The man responsible for maintaining the well told me he was worried that pesticides sprayed in the soy fields could be affecting the community water supply. He can’t say definitively if his concern is well-founded because the government hasn’t tested the water since the well was installed three years ago. “We are concerned about the pesticide spraying but we are also concerned about being threatened, so we need not talk about it too much,” he said with an awkward laugh. “That’s what we face here.” 

Today is World Water Day. Safe drinking water is a human right, including people’s right to know what’s in their drinking water. We know that pesticide residues can leach with rainwater into surface and groundwaters that are often the source of drinking water.

Some countries regularly test drinking water supplies for pesticides and make those results available to the public. In Brazil, in practice, that does not happen. We made a freedom of information request for national test results on pesticide residues in drinking water for 2014 to 2017. We found that despite legal requirements, drinking water supplies are rarely tested for pesticides.

By law, water suppliers -- whether government or private companies or municipal governments -- are responsible for testing for 27 designated pesticides every six months in the water systems they manage and reporting those results to the federal government. But each year, an average of 67 per cent of municipalities across the county do not submit any information to the Federal government – and this in one of the largest pesticide consumers in the world. The Federal government has no idea how tainted drinking water in Brazil might be or about the harm it could be doing to its people.

Even in municipalities that submit data, most test results are incomplete. Of the test results submitted in 2014, only 18 per cent were full tests for all 27 pesticides conducted twice a year as required by the law.

Put simply, Brazil’s drinking water surveillance system is shamefully inadequate in monitoring the threat of hazardous pesticides.

Even with this woefully incomplete system, Brazilian authorities manage to identify some municipalities where drinking water has pesticide residues above the legal limits. Indeed, 15 percent of the small number of municipalities that submitted test results during this four-year period reported at least one substance above the legal limit.

What sort of substances are found? The most common pesticides don’t have easily recognizable names -- aldrin, dieldrin, chlordane and endrin -- but they are all dangerous to human health. These broad-spectrum insecticides were banned in Brazil in the 1990s but are so persistent in the environment that they are turning up in drinking water decades later.

Those worried about what’s in their water have few options. Without a comprehensive testing system, the best information comes from academic studies. In 2016, researchers published Brazil’s first nationwide survey of emerging contaminants in drinking water. After caffeine -- a chemical marker indicating untreated sewage, because caffeine is excreted in urine -- the second most commonly found contaminant in drinking water was the herbicide atrazine, found in a whopping 75 per cent of samples from across the country.

Atrazine is legally permitted in Brazil. Residual levels in water were well below the legal threshold, but recent animal studies show that even at low doses over long periods, atrazine may be an endocrine disrupting chemical, interfering with reproductive, developmental, neural and immune functions.

Researchers detected atrazine above the permissible limit in drinking water in two rural municipalities in Mato Grosso state-- Lucas do Rio Verde and Campo Verde. And carbofuran, another chemical dangerous to human health was found above the permitted levels in samples from drinking water wells in Quitéria, a rural area near Rio Grande, a southern city.

What does all this add up to? Brazil uses large amounts of pesticides that compromise its citizens’ environment, and authorities are failing to ensure that drinking water supplies are not tainted by harmful levels of those pesticides. That’s a dangerous place to be. Brazil needs to enforce an effective monitoring system for its drinking water to ensure that water supplies are properly tested for pesticides and that results are made available to the public.

Richard Pearshouse is associate environment and human rights director at Human Rights Watch. João Guilherme Bieber is a consultant at Human Rights Watch.

Author: Human Rights Watch, Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am