The brazen murder of a Honduran human rights lawyer underscores just why the country’s authorities must step up their efforts to protect human rights defenders and those they work to support, Amnesty International said.
Antonio Trejo Cabrera died on Saturday evening after gunmen shot him five times outside a wedding ceremony in a southern suburb of the capital Tegucigalpa. Media accounts have described the shooting as a calculated act carried out by experts.
The human rights lawyer had reported receiving death threats linked to his work representing the victims of human rights abuses amid an ongoing land conflict in the Bajo Aguán region in the north of the country.
“This outrageous murder sows fear in the Honduran human rights community and must be a wake-up call for the authorities, who need drastically to step up measures to protect human rights defenders and the victims of abuses,” said Guadalupe Marengo, Deputy Americas Programme Director at Amnesty International.
“President Lobo must immediately issue an unequivocal statement expressing dismay at this act, affirming his support of human rights defenders and their right to carry out their work free from threats, attacks and intimidation.
“A thorough, independent and impartial investigation must be carried out into this murder, with those responsible brought to justice. Failing to do so will continue to send the dangerous message that Honduran authorities are unable or unwilling to protect human rights defenders and uphold the rule of law.”
Conflict in Bajo Aguán
Trejo had been a lawyer for three peasant cooperatives that are embroiled in a complex land-rights dispute in Bajo Aguán, a fertile valley in the north of the country.
He had helped farmers to regain legal rights to land in the valley and was due to travel to Washington, DC in October to take part in hearings at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights on the ongoing land dispute.
In recent years, thousands of landless rural workers occupied land which they claim had been expropriated by wealthy landowners and corporations. Legal battles have been waged for over a decade, with decisions being set down, appealed and multiple forced evictions being carried out.
Repeated violent confrontations in the valley have resulted in scores of deaths over the past three years – mainly of rural farmers but also of the landowners’ employees.
The violence continues despite a deal the Honduran government struck with the valley’s landowners to return some 4,000 acres of agricultural land to some rural farmers’ cooperatives.
Private security personnel working for landowners and companies in Bajo Aguán have been accused of a series of alleged human rights abuses including threats against local farmers as well as rape and other violent attacks.
“The root of this violence and the impunity surrounding it needs to be tackled urgently, to avoid a further escalation of the situation in the Bajo Aguán region,” said Marengo.