Rights advocates say Zelaya supporters targeted in Honduras

Miami HeraldDecember 12, 2009 

JUTICALPA, Honduras -- Ulises Sarmiento, a devout and wealthy follower of ousted Honduran President Manuel "Mel" Zelaya, paid a heavy price for his loyalty: A few weeks ago, hit men attacked with grenade launchers and a deluge of bullets, killing his two bodyguards.

An iron door kept the assassins at bay.

"Why do they come with grenades? You could hear this from a half mile away,'' said Sarmiento, 65, an Olancho businessman and a leader of Honduras' "Resistance Movement," formed after Zelaya was kicked out of the country at gunpoint in June.

"They knew the police were never coming, and, sure enough, they did not come,'' said Sarmiento, now watched by six men, one of whom stays perched beside his bullet-ridden armored Ford F-250.

As Zelaya approaches his sixth month of banishment, human-rights organizations here and abroad say Honduras has experienced a serious deterioration of civil rights in a country where death squads and extrajudicial killings already were commonplace.

Resistance members say they have been subjected to a campaign by police, the military and paramilitaries to execute their leaders and members. Human-rights activists have documented the deaths of 26 members who have been stabbed or shot across the country.

Activists say more than 3,000 people have been illegally detained, 450 beaten, and 114 now are political prisoners since the June coup.

"It seems now that anytime something goes wrong, the people of the Resistance are trying to connect it with being part of the Resistance when there could be other factors involved,'' said National Police spokesman Orlin Cerrato. He disputes that there are political prisoners, saying those arrested at rallies and protests were detained for criminal infractions like painting graffiti.

But investigations have been stymied by a deep distrust of authorities, diminishing any chances victims may have had for justice.

"I don't know what people think can be done when there is a state policy to do nothing,'' said Bertha Oliva, head of the Committee of Relatives of Disappeared Detainees, a human-rights group here known by its Spanish acronym, COFADEH.

As she flipped through her records of names of the dead, her phone rang. The caller said that teacher Gradis Espinal, missing after police stopped him, was found dead in Tegucigalpa.

``I am so angry,'' she said, choking back tears. ``I feel helpless.''

Teachers have been targeted for taking part in national strikes, she and other human-rights leaders said.

Some of the clashes have been volatile. Two of the Resistance Movement's most publicized death cases were teachers who died weeks apart.

``I was at a protest when I saw a police officer fall off the back of a truck, so other officers started shooting in the air to keep the protesters back,'' said Johnny Rodríguez, a math teacher in Tegucigalpa. ``The next thing I know, there's Roger, with a bullet in his head.''

Roger Vallejo died Aug. 1 in one of the few cases that prosecutors acknowledge was directly tied to the police.

Félix Murillo López, a teacher standing beside him, picked up shell casings and brought them to prosecutors. Two months later, Murillo died in what investigators say was a motorcycle accident. His friends call his death a murder because his bike turned up in one place and his body in another.

Authorities say the teacher was drunk and that his death was not the result of foul play.

But Cerrato, the police spokesman, said officers have had to deal with Resistance members planting bombs, throwing grenades and ``launching an intimidation campaign against the rest of the community.''

The state human-rights agency, which backed Zelaya's removal, also has dismissed much of the Resistance's arguments.

``For us, there are seven cases,'' said Nery Roberto Velásquez, who works for the National Human Rights Ombudsman. ``In general, what you have more often are coincidences. Our reports say, `We don't know what happened here,' and the other organizations' reports will say, `It was murder!' ''

Among those killed in direct relation to their Resistance activities, including the country's most notorious case, was 19-year-old Isis Obed Murillo. Obed Murillo died at a mass rally at Tegucigalpa's airport on July 5, the same day that Zelaya vowed to return by air. Sources said Obed Murillo was killed by M-16 rifle fire, which tests showed likely came from the airport's runway where the Honduran military blocked Zelaya's projected path. A court agreed with the military's refusal to turn in its weapons for testing, so the investigation has stalled.

Sandra Ponce, head of the attorney general's human-rights division, said she counts 11 coup-related deaths, including the two asthmatic women who died of respiratory problems after being doused with tear gas. Another man was shot after yelling ``coup plotter!'' at a police officer, and a peasant was killed when he refused to stop at a roadblock.

Other cases, such as the Aug. 22 murder of 16-year-old Jonathan Osorio -- shot at his doorstep a month after joining Zelaya supporters at the Nicaraguan border to demand Zelaya's return -- are unclear.

``Our numbers are always lower than the human-rights organizations' because we can't work off speculation,'' Ponce said in an interview. ``In many of these cases, there is no evidence.''

``What calls my attention is that all of these anonymous people in the Resistance were killed,'' Ponce added. ``It seems the most vulnerable are the anonymous -- to disassemble a group, you go after the base.''

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights visited Honduras this summer and could only categorize a handful of cases as state-related.

``We have been dealing for years with violence against defenders of human rights,'' said commission member Paolo Carroza, a professor at Notre Dame University. ``My presumption is, yeah, some are politically motivated, because that has been a pattern in Honduras for a long time, not just since the coup.''

Miami Herald reporter Laura Figueroa contributed to this report.

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