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Environmental Judges Getting Death Threats

May 23, 2008

The three judges that oversee the Environmental Tribunal have received death threats, and the tribunal has come under pressure to back off restrictions on coastal development.

Tribunal President José Lino Chaves said he has received “four or five” phone calls in which the caller tells him “to watch his head,” and, “We are going to cut off your head.”

The tribunal, an independent court of the Environment and Energy Ministry (MINAE), also has been the target of a “wave of pressure” that has included requests for disciplinary action against the judges and an “offensive article” in a national newspaper, according to a statement released this week by the court.

“There is a campaign to discredit the work the tribunal is doing,” Chaves said.

The controversy stems from an unprecedented crackdown recently by the tribunal, which has been investigating – and in some cases fining and closing – real estate developments across the country for alleged violations, such as illegal logging and construction without a permit.

MINAE officials, local government and central government agencies in a series of regional sweeps through the Central Pacific, the Caribbean province of Limón and the northwest province of Guanacaste have joined the Tribunal judges in their investigations.

Arriving unannounced and often choosing developments at random, the officials have left in their wake a series of housing, condominium and hotel construction projects suspended or under investigation for alleged environmental violations.

Chaves said he received the first death threats during the tribunal’s sweep through the Caribbean, and then again when the judges were in Guanacaste.

The court’s other two judges have received similar calls as well, he said.

Chaves didn’t pay much attention to his death threat until his wife got a threat early one morning at their home.

Last week, all three judges filed complaints with the Judicial Investigation Police (OIJ) and launched a public relations counter attack.

In two press releases, the tribunal said it would continue its work, noting it still has the support of the National Environmental Commission, made up of President Oscar Arias, Environment Minister Roberto Dobles and other members of the president’s cabinet.

“We wouldn’t be able to do this work without the support of Dobles,” Chaves said.

Among the “pressures” the tribunal complained of were a letter sent to Dobles by the Union of Private-Sector Chambers and Associations (UCCAEP), which represents 42 business chambers, and a letter from the National Tourism Chamber (CANATUR).

UCCAEP provided The Tico Times a copy of its letter, which expresses concern not for the sweeps in general, but for the tribunal’s handling of one day of inspections in Guanacaste.

The Tico Times attempted to speak to CANATUR’s president, Gonzalo Vargas, but was directed to his press office, which did not return calls by press time.

On May 7, journalists received an invitation from the tribunal to join the judges for the closure of six major tourism developments in Guanacaste, including the $300 million Hyatt Regency Azulera beachfront resort in Playa Brasilito.

“We beg of you TOTAL CONFIDENTIALITY with respect to the names of the projects to be closed, as they cannot be disclosed for legal reasons until we are present for the closure tomorrow,” the invitation read.

The information was leaked to developers, however, who were prepared the following day to take legal action. Instead of being shut down, the developments were put under investigation. The tribunal announced that one of its judges fell sick and had to be hospitalized and, therefore, could not close any projects without the presence of all three judges.

The letter from UCCAEP to Dobles, dated May 8, the day of the inspection, took issue with the foretold closures, saying the developers had a right “to due process.”

“But according to the wording of the press invitation yesterday, it would seem that the authorities are more interested in a yellow journalism spectacle than in the protection of our environmental riches,” wrote Manuel Rodriguez, the chamber’s president.

Chaves would not discuss what happened that day, but noted that with just “a doubt” about possible environmental damage, the court has the power to stop a construction project.

“If there are doubts, then those come from a technical report and inspection,” he said. “In case of doubt, it is the environment that should be favored. But it has to be a very major impact for the tribunal to close a project.”

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