Still waiting for justice for Bernardo – CIDSE

Still waiting for justice for Bernardo

#EscazúAhoraGT #JusticiaParaBernardo y #BernardoCaalXol

Today is international Earth Day. In Guatemala, an environmental defender named Bernardo Caal, will celebrate it in jail, sentenced unjustly to seven years and three months of prison. He is still waiting, after more than three years, a fair opportunity to appeal his sentence. At the same time, human right defenders in Latin America are celebrating the entering into force of a new regional binding treaty: the Escazú Agreement.(*) Unfortunately, Guatemala did not ratify it.

Bernardo Caal Xol is a leader of the peaceful resistance of Cahabón, a collective of 38 Maya Q’eqchi’ communities in the northern department of Alta Verapaz in Guatemala. The indigenous communities that need access to the river for their livelihood, opposed the construction of the Oxec and Renace dams on the Cahabón River and its tributaries.  Moreover, the river is sacred to the Q’eqchi and shall flow in peace. There are seven hydroelectric dams operating in the river basin. Bernardo filed a series of injunctions against the project and in 2017 the high courts acknowledged that the right to free, prior, and informed consultation of the Indigenous communities was violated. But in November 2018, Bernardo Caal Xol was sentenced to seven years and four months of prison by a court based on allegations that lack objective evidence.  

In one of his recent letters from prison, Bernardo wrote: “The department of Alta Verapaz is inhabited by the Q’eqchi ‘people; its rivers sequestered and piped to make hydroelectric power plants work. However, Q’eqchi’ communities do not have electricity, remain in darkness, they continue to use the famous ‘candle’. And then, where is the electrical energy taken? This is called: dispossession, exclusion, discrimination and racism.”

Since Bernardo was imprisoned, human rights collectives in Guatemala and internationally have tried to have Bernardo’s trial reviewed by different means and bring attention to the wider pattern of unjust incrimination of human rights and environmental defenders in Guatemala. In Belgium, a collective of solidarity committees and CIDSE member, Broederlijk Delen, invited Bernardo’s sister in 2019 to receive the Quetzal Prize for Human Rights on behalf of her brother.

In 2020, Amnesty International declared Bernardo Caal Xol to be a prisoner of conscience who has been wrongfully imprisoned.

Earlier this year; CIDSE co-signed a statement at the 46th Session of the UN Human Rights Council (22 February-23 March) to draw attention to the case of Bernardo.

On 30 March, the lawyer collective that accompanies the case of Bernardo, submitted to the Court three “amicus curiae”, to reinforce the arguments of the defense. One amicus curiae, co-signed by CIDSE, gives evidence of how human rights activists are systematically criminalized in Guatemala. The second amicus curiae was based on the Laudato Si’ and Fratelli Tutti encyclicals, emphasizing the importance of defending environmental rights. This amicus curiae was co-signed by the Guatemalan Cardinal, Alvaro Ramazzini and Brazilian theologian Leonardo Boff as well as by the human rights activist Marcia Miranda. The third amicus curiae was written by an Argentinian law expert and shows how vicious court procedures result in unjust sentences for human rights defenders like Bernardo. These three amicus curiae were to be presented at a hearing of the Court on 5 April, but the latter has been delayed twice. This delay is a recurrent pattern in Guatemalan justice.

Together with Bernardo, CIDSE hopes that the new date set for the hearing, 7 May, will be respected by the Court and that he will have the opportunity to be heard.

(*) The objective of the Escazu Agreement is to guarantee full and effective access by citizens to information on environmental projects; public participation in decision-making processes: and access to justice in environmental matters. This is the first Latin American and Caribbean regional agreement binding on the environment. This agreement also paves the way for cooperation mechanisms between countries. Above all, it contains specific provisions on human rights defenders engaged in environmental issues that protect and encourage them in their work.

See also:Un espoir pour la défense de l’environnement en Amérique latine” by Walter Prysthon, Head of Latin America and Caribbean Department, CCFD-Terre Solidaire

Cover photo credit: Bernardo Caal

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