Amid Peace Efforts, Honduran Violence Builds

August 21, 2009

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TEGUCIGALPA,Honduras – A group of representatives from the Inter-American Commission onHuman Rights, based in Costa Rica, visited Honduras this week to investigateallegations of police brutality and a press crackdown as the country’spolitical crisis nears two months.

Thecrisis was triggered when soldiers rousted President Manuel Zelaya at dawn June28 at gunpoint and sent him on a plane to Costa Rica. The Supreme Court had orderedZelaya’s arrest for defying the court’s orders to stop what the court said washis illegal push for constitutional changes.

AmnestyInternational released a statement, along with photos, on its Web site Wednesday,alleging Honduran police and soldiers have been roughing up protesters who aredemanding Zelaya’s return to power.

“Massarbitrary arrests and ill treatment of protesters are a serious and growingconcern in Honduras today,” said Esther Major, a Central American researcher atAmnesty International. She said that detentions and beatings at the hands ofpolice are being used “as a deterrent for those contemplating taking to thestreets to peacefully show their discontent with the political turmoil the countryis experiencing.”

Thestatement said that Amnesty International interviewed 75 protesters who hadbeen detained at a local police station after a peaceful July 30 protest. Itsaid that many of the detainees still showed bruises allegedly caused by policebatons.

Butnot all protests have been peaceful. A demonstration turned violent last week whena group of protesters burned a bus and looted and set fire to a Popeye’sChicken and Biscuits franchise in the capital city of Tegucigalpa. Plumes ofblack smoke billowed into the sky as rioters took a safe from the restaurant,carried it onto a bridge above the street, cracked the safe, and sent a rain ofbills of Lempira, the Honduran currency, onto the demonstrators below.

Policeresponded by launching tear gas into the crowd. Police officers in riot gearthen scattered protesters by chasing them through the streets with batonsraised. According to reports, one police officer threw a rock at a fleeingprotester. Police commissioner Danilo Orellana denied police wrongdoing.

“Thearmed forces and police have never violated the human rights of protesters. Wehave human rights too. Protesters have been spitting in our faces, and we’vebeen tolerant,” he said, vowing to crack down on violent protesters.

“Ifthey get violent, police will use necessary force,” Orellana said last week. TheInter-American Commission on Human Rights is set to release this weekend a reportdetailing alleged human rights abuses during the nearly eight weeks of unrestsince Zelaya was ousted, as well as alleged violations of press freedoms, saidcommissioner Paolo Carozza. In the latest attack on the press, protesters threwMolotov cocktails at the right-wing daily El Heraldo last weekend.

Atleast three protesters have been killed, and a fourth man allegedly was shot todeath by soldiers when he refused to stop at a highway military checkpoint,according to Honduran human rights ombudsman Ramon Custodio, who isinvestigating the cases.

Ina statement this week, police officials called for those who believe they have sufferedpolitical persecution to formally denounce threats against them so that they canbe considered for protection.

Meanwhile,Zelaya this week continued his regional travels through Latin America, stoppingto meet with Peruvian leader Alan Garcia in Lima, in efforts to shore upsupport for his return to power.

Thede facto government of President Roberto Micheletti hasn’t budged on its refusalto allow Zelaya to return as president, as Costa Rican President Oscar Arias proposedlast month in an 11-point plan for a peaceful end to the crisis.

AnOrganization of American States (OAS) mission of foreign ministers is scheduledto visit Honduras in the coming days in a bid to build internal consensus forArias’ proposal. This proposal includes temporary political amnesty for bothsides of the conflict and pushes presidential elections in Honduras up a monthto October.

Themission was delayed last week when the Micheletti government accused OAS SecretaryGeneral Jose Miguel Insulza of bias, and refused to let him lead a mission.

DuringInsulza’s visit last month, the leader failed to convince the acting governmentto allow Zelaya to return, and he refused to meet with Micheletti, who wasvoted into office by congress the day of the coup. Micheletti said Insulza iswelcome in Honduras “as a tourist,” but not as the head of a diplomaticmission.

Meanwhile,Zelaya’s wife, first lady Xiomara Castro, who has been leading protests topressure for her husband’s return, called on the OAS not to recognize the upcomingelections if Zelaya isn’t restored to power beforehand.

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