TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras – As many as 1,000 protesters showed up at the Radio Globo station here Wednesday morning only to run for cover when military officers chased them up the street, threw tear gas at them, beat them with batons and arrested at least 30 people, according to witnesses.
The protest, the largest to date, followed an executive order issued Monday by de facto President Roberto Micheletti limiting freedom of speech, communication and assembly.
The turnout at protests by sympathizers of ousted Honduran president Manuel Zelaya shrank drastically during the past week – from thousands of people to at most 500 following the decree.
Protesters blocked one lane of traffic outside Radio Globo, but they insisted they weren’t disturbing the peace when military officers moved in.
David Romero, director of Radio Globo – which officials took off the air Monday following an interview with Zelaya in which he asked sympathizers to flock to Tegucigalpa for “one final struggle” – said the military herded the protesters like sheep, surrounded them, then began their assault.
“They attacked without warning,” Romero said. “The protesters didn’t want to fight.”
Cesar Caceres, spokesman for Micheletti, said he didn’t know enough about the incident to comment. Caceres said the protest had not been given previous approval by the national police.
Under the executive order limiting freedom of assembly, protests of 20 or more participants must be given previous approval by the national police. Caceres said protesters at Radio Globo had not notified police about the rally.
Volunteers for the Resistance Front said more people stayed home this week for fear of retribution from the de facto government, which took power June 28 after Zelaya was arrested by military officials at his home and forced into exile.
Protests Monday and Tuesday saw only several hundred demonstrators, many of whom seemed more pensive than excited as they stood between two rows of riot police enclosing the street in front of FranciscoMorazánPedagologicalUniversity.
Zelaya sympathizer Jose Luis Calix said resistance supporters are staying home for fear of being arrested or beaten, but others aren’t showing up because the government’s closure of pro-Zelaya media has made it harder for them to know where to go.
“We no longer have the right to stay informed,” Calix said. “They’ve done everything they can to keep us in our houses.”
But Caceres said the executive order was imposed to curb violence and prevent further damage to private property as the result of protests the resistance allowed to get out of control.
“Of all the protests leading up to this decree, not one of them was peaceful,” Caceres said Tuesday. “[The Resistance Front] tried to create a sense of terror among the population.”
The Honduran National Congress expressed dissatisfaction with the decree issued on Monday. Micheletti responded at a press conference that he would take the issue to the Supreme Court and Supreme Electoral Tribunal for their opinions on whether the decree should be repealed.
Various international human rights organizations, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have condemned the executive order.
National police and military officials continued on Wednesday to use their new broad powers to repress freedom of assembly. Tensions ran high among the few who remained outside the radio station following the protest.
“If we were armed, they wouldn’t attack us,” said Oscar Tabora, an organizer of the protest at Radio Globo. “We’ve almost had enough. The people – we have our own ways of defending ourselves.”
Protester Maera Medina, whose eyes continued to water because of the tear gas, said police went after protesters indiscriminately. “They were beating people like they were animals,” Medina said.
Military officers hung around a block away from Radio Globo for about an hour after the protest. The remaining protesters shouted obscenities at them as they boarded government trucks and raced off in caravanfashion.
The military personnel smiled and waved to the protesters.
Caceres said Micheletti is continuing to meet with officials from other branches of the government to decide when he will lift the executive order.
Cesar Murcia, another volunteer for the Resistance Front, said the attack was an abuse of power by the interim government. Murcia said attempts to discourage protesters aren’t working, despite the fact that very few protesters remained outside Radio Globo.“We still have conviction, and we still have an objective,” he said.
Caceras said Micheletti’s ultimate goal is to keep the country’s political atmosphere stable as the presidential election in November draws near.
Caceres said accusations of Micheletti acting dictatorial are ludicrous.
“He will stay in office until Jan. 28, 2010, the end of his term,” Caceres said. “Not one day longer, not one day less. It’s that simple.”