Honduran regime's crackdown on dissent condemned

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 28, 2009 

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras -- The de facto government of Honduras that took power three months ago found itself increasingly isolated Monday after suspending basic civil rights and closing down television and radio stations allied with ousted President Manuel Zelaya.

Governments ranging from the United States to Chile to France condemned the moves, as did the Organization of American States, Human Rights Watch and the leading candidate for president in Honduras.

"We are very concerned by the de facto regime's suspension of fundamental liberties," said Charles Luoma-Overstreet, a State Department spokesman in Washington. "We call on the de facto regime to lift the decree and take the necessary steps to initiate a meaningful negotiation with President Zelaya."

Interim President Roberto Micheletti's moves caught most observers by surprise because the government seemed to have the upper hand since Zelaya sneaked back into Honduras a week ago and sought refuge at the Brazilian Embassy.

Government troops have trapped Zelaya inside the embassy, and he's failed to muster a groundswell of public support. The Micheletti government, however, felt threatened by Zelaya's call for his supporters to launch "a final offensive" Monday.

The question is whether the government's move will harden positions on both sides or serve as a catalyst to break the stalemate that predates Zelaya's ouster June 28.

For now, at least, the Micheletti government seems dug in. It issued a decree late Sunday that suspends civil liberties for as long as 45 days "to guarantee peace and public order in the country and because of the calls for insurrection that Mr. Zelaya has publicly made."

The decree prohibits unauthorized gatherings and permits the police to arrest "any person who poses a danger to his own life or those of others" without the judicial warrant that's usually required.

It also allows the government to close TV and radio stations temporarily that "attack peace and public order."

Two stations that the government closed Monday morning _ Radio Globo and Channel 36 _ have served as outlets for Zelaya and his leading supporters to organize rallies and get out their message.

"Some radio stations and TV stations have been inciting violence," Micheletti said at a news conference Monday at which he also called for "dialogue" between the two sides and said that civil liberties would be restored soon.

David Romero, Radio Globo's general manager, said soldiers rushed the station just after 5 a.m. Monday and carted off all its broadcast equipment and computers.

"I feel impotent," Romero said.

Zelaya's supporters, while condemning the shutdowns, said the move would create a backlash against the interim government.

"The government is weak and nervous," said Rafael Alegria, a rural leader who's one of the organizers of the pro-Zelaya "National Resistance Front."

Alegria spoke Monday surrounded by supporters in front of the National Teachers University, a hotbed of the pro-Zelaya movement. Riot police, standing two deep on either end of the street, kept the 750 protesters bottled up. A police truck filled with dirty water kept its motor running in case it had to turn its nozzle on the protesters.

The group broke up peacefully, however, and traffic flowed as usual Monday throughout Tegucigalpa.

Besides the United States and other countries, OAS Secretary-General Jose Miguel Insulza called the Micheletti government's crackdown a mistake.

"We are worried by this decision," Insulza said in Washington.

Porfirio "Pepe" Lobo, the conservative National Party candidate who's leading the polls for president, told a radio station that he regretted the government's decision to suspend personal liberties. The election is scheduled for Nov. 29, and the new president is supposed to take office Jan. 27.

Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, who's offered a plan that would restore Zelaya to office with limited powers for the final four months of his term, said Monday that he couldn't travel to Honduras while constitutional guarantees remained suspended.

"Roberto Micheletti has effectively outlawed public criticism," Jose Miguel Vivanco, the Americas director at Human Rights Watch, added in a statement. "This kind of decree has been the norm for authoritarian rulers — from Chile's Pinochet to Cuba's Castros — who tolerate freedom of speech only when it favors the government."

Micheletti and his supporters say he took office after a legal transfer of power. Analysts think that Micheletti government officials felt emboldened to act in part because a report from the nonpartisan U.S. Law Library of Congress that was made public last week said that Honduran authorities had removed Zelaya legally, although they overstepped when they exiled him.

Honduras' Congress elevated Micheletti to the presidency after soldiers whisked Zelaya out of the country June 28. They did so after a court order called for his removal from office for violating the constitution when he tried to hold a public referendum June 28 to change the constitution.

The Obama administration and virtually all foreign leaders have said that not reinstating Zelaya to power would encourage coups in the region.

ON THE WEB

The Law Library of Congress report

One rebuttal to the Law Library of Congress report

A second rebuttal to the Law Library of Congress report

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