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Indigenous leaders call for President Zelaya’s return

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The largest indigenous organizations in Honduras are calling for the immediate return of deposed President Manuel Zelaya, and they assert that the new administration is trying to hide the real reason for the coup, which was that the opposition feared a new constitution that could provide more rights and protections to indigenous and other Hondurans.

The groups also said the coup leadership was preventing indigenous people from protesting, forcing the military recruitment of children, active persecution of leaders and creating a “black list” of resistance leaders (including protest against the recently enacted suspension of the rights of free speech, free assembly, and protection against illegal search and torture.)

While mainstream coverage of the crisis has focused on objections made against the coup by most Latin American presidents, the Organization of American States, U.S. President Barack Obama and the United Nations, the indigenous peoples of Honduras have been active in expressing their outrage at the coup d’etat of June 28, when Honduran soldiers took Zelaya from his home at gunpoint, and put him on a plane headed for El Salvador.

According to press sources, Zelaya acted illegally in June when he pushed ahead for a non-binding referendum to be held in November along with regular elections. This referendum/survey would have asked Hondurans whether they wanted to convene a constituent assembly that could then rewrite the Honduran constitution. The National Congress and the Honduran Supreme Court ruled the referendum was illegal and that the president could not go ahead with the plan.

Zelaya persisted, and fired General Romeo Vasquez, head of the Armed Forces (and graduate of the U.S. School of the Americas), for refusing to deliver the ballot boxes to election sites.

Many press accounts emphasized the idea that the chief executive was interested in creating a new law to allow him to run again, and that he was a puppet of President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. But Zelaya’s indigenous supporters are saying they were in favor of the referendum because it could give Native peoples a chance at re-writing the constitution to give them more rights and protections of their territories; and when the president was deposed, indigenous peoples reacted quickly.

From June 28 to July 5, indigenous groups like the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), the Indigenous Coordinating Body of Mesoamerica and the Caribbean (CIMCA) and MASTA or Moskitia United, issued press releases outlining a list of demands and concerns, all connected to Zelaya’s forcible removal by the military.

The groups publicized these positions in the many demonstrations that have occurred on an almost daily basis since June 28 (including the demonstration July 6 at the national airport that drew more than 100,000 people in favor of the president’s return).

Edgardo Benitez Maclin, a Tawahka leader and Regional Coordinator for CIMCA, responded to requests for comment by sending a series of press statements outlining the issues for Native peoples in Honduras. According to Benitez, the Lenca, Miskitu, Tawahka, Pech, Maya-Chorti, Tolupan, Garifuna, Creole, Nahoa and Chorotega peoples contributed jointly to each of the press releases.

The “Political Position of the Peoples” statement included a section about the groups’ desire for a new constitution. “We will never give up our historic struggle for reform of the political constitution of our country, in which it recognizes the multicultural and multilingual Honduras; the particular rights of our peoples; for a participative and inclusive democracy; the right to the free, prior and informed consent of our peoples. … as is established in the Treaty 169 of the UN and the UN Declaration on The Rights of Indigenous Peoples.”

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In another document, entitled “Public Condemnation,” the groups list eight complaints.

“The Army and National Police has not ceased in its harassment, beating, and threatening of indigenous peoples and has removed the right to free movement of those who seek to travel to the capital of Tegucigalpa to protest publicly and peacefully for the re-establishment of constitutional order and the return of President Manuel Zelaya.”

The CIMCA document states that the “… National Congress. … has suspended all of the constitutional guarantees. …” Along with that suspension media has been affected; according to the press statement issued separately by COPINH, “… the guarantee for free movement continues to be violated in that buses full of people continue to be detained along the highways. Also they have fortified the gag rule so that local and community radio stations or those commercial stations that wanted to present a version of the events that was different from that of the coup leaders were closed, destroyed or threatened.” These charges were echoed by the OAS’ Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in one of its press statements issued June 29, the day after the coup.

“The Office of the Special Rapporteur received information that since June 28, 2009, in Honduras, local and international media have been suffering severe limitations to freely accomplish their work. According to the information received, open broadcast media outlets have been closed; while other cable channels, such as Telesur and CNN en Español and other radios such as Globo, were banned from broadcasting.

“Moreover, energy was cut off, which prevented television and radio from broadcasting, as well as the access to the Internet. According to the information received, many reporters were attacked while they were working, and others were arbitrarily retained; such was the case of Adriana Sivori, Rudy Quiróz, and other members of Telesur team. Cartoonist Allan McDonald would have been detained with his 17-month-old daughter. Finally, it was informed that many journalists would have been receiving threats in order to make them stop reporting,” stated IACHR.

CIMCA and IACHR asserted that other human rights violations were occurring in connection with the coup. “We are also aware that they are recruiting young indigenous and rural men in isolated areas, mainly in the departments where most of the Lenca population lives,” read the CIMCA statement. “This action also violates the Honduran Constitution. Information also exists of a black list of leaders opposed to the coup, whom the military must arrest, torture, eliminate or incarcerate immediately.”

The IACHR highlighted some details of the accusations about detention and threats in another June 29 press release. “According to information received by the IACHR, military forces have been surrounding the house of Bertha Cáceres, member of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras. Military forces have allegedly also surrounded the house of César Ham, Representative in the National Congress by the Partido Unificación Democrática. The military also allegedly fired on Representative Ham’s house with machine-guns. Additionally, Edran Amado López, a journalist on the TV Channel 36 program ‘Cholusatsur,’ was allegedly detained and his whereabouts remain unknown.”

The CIMCA statement pointed out that what was happening recently was a throwback to a darker time in Honduran history.

“The military during the ’80s lead abominable operations against the civil populations, as is being done now by coup President Micheletti who is calling on these same men to be his advisors. This means that there is a latent and serious danger to the lives of all indigenous leaders and those of others in the social movements.”

As of press time July 7, no other updates had been sent by any indigenous groups.