Honduras is a constitutional, multiparty republic. The country held national and local elections in November 2013. Voters elected Juan Orlando Hernandez of the National Party as president for a four-year term that began in January 2014. International observers generally recognized the elections as transparent, credible, and reflecting the will of the electorate. The National Congress elected a new 15-member Supreme Court for a seven-year term in February.
Civilian authorities at times did not maintain effective control over the security forces.
Pervasive societal violence persisted, although the state made efforts to reduce it. The March murder of environmental and indigenous rights activist Berta Caceres underscored state institutions’ lack of effective measures to protect activists. Violence and land-rights disputes involving indigenous people, agricultural workers, landowners, the extractive industry, and development projects continued in rural areas, including the Bajo Aguan region. Organized criminal elements, including local and transnational gangs and narcotics traffickers, were significant perpetrators of violent crimes and committed acts of murder, extortion, kidnapping, torture, human trafficking, and intimidation of journalists, women, and human rights defenders.
Other serious human rights problems were widespread impunity due to corruption and institutional weaknesses in the investigative, prosecutorial, and judicial systems, and excessive use of force and criminal actions by members of the security forces. Additional, human rights problems included harsh and at times life-threatening prison conditions; lengthy pretrial detention and failure to provide due process of law; threats and violence by criminals directed against human rights defenders, judicial authorities, lawyers, the business community, journalists, bloggers, and members of vulnerable populations; violence against and harassment of women; child abuse; trafficking in persons, including child prostitution; human smuggling, including of unaccompanied children; failure to conduct free and informed consultations with indigenous communities prior to the authorization of development projects; discrimination against indigenous and Afro-descendent communities; violence against and harassment of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons; ineffective enforcement of labor laws; and child labor.
The government took steps to prosecute and punish officials who committed abuses, including arresting and prosecuting members of congress, judges, prosecutors, police officers, mayors, and other local authorities. Civilian authorities arrested and investigated members of the security forces alleged to have committed human rights abuses. Some prosecutions of military and police officials charged with human rights violations moved too slowly or failed to convict the responsible parties.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings
There were multiple reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings.
Civilian authorities investigated and arrested members of the security forces accused of human rights abuses. Impunity, however, remained a serious problem, with delays in some prosecutions and sources alleging corruption in judicial proceedings.
On March 3, environmental and indigenous activist, Berta Caceres, was killed in her home in Intibuca Department (see also section 6, Indigenous People). In early May the Public Ministry arrested five individuals implicated in her killing, including an active duty Honduran Special Forces officer and a manager at a hydroelectric project that Caceres had actively opposed. Law enforcement authorities arrested a sixth suspect in September. As of November a judge had remanded all six to custody pending trial, and their defense lawyer had submitted a request for dismissal of the charges, which was still pending. The Public Ministry continued its investigation into whether others were involved in planning the crime. The Honduran Armed Forces dishonorably discharged the Special Forces officer implicated in Caceres’ death.
Also in March local and international media reported that corrupt senior police officials working for drug traffickers were responsible for the killings of senior antinarcotics officials Julian Gonzalez in 2009 and Alfredo Landaverde in 2011, and the murder of senior anti-money-laundering prosecutor Orlan Chavez in 2013. According to media reports, other senior police and Ministry of Security officials covered up the crimes or failed to take action to bring those responsible to justice. Subsequently, the government passed legislative decree 21-2016, which created the Special Commission in Charge of Purging and Restructuring the Honduran National Police (HNP), comprising the minister of security, a former president of the Supreme Court, and two prominent members of civil society, to review systematically the performance and integrity of all police officials. As of December 19, the commission had reviewed the personnel files of 3,004 officials and dismissed 1,835 officers, while allowing 256 officers to retire voluntarily, for a total of 2,091 police officers dismissed from the HNP. In February a three-judge tribunal acquitted all senior military officials previously accused of covering up the 2012 killing of 15-year-old Ebed Jassiel Yanes Caceres.
On May 19, Military Police for Public Order (PMOP) soldier, Jose Alonzo Miranda Almendarez, shot and killed Alexis Alberto Avila Ramirez when Avila and his brother fled from the PMOP squad executing arrest warrants against them in the city of Danli, El Paraiso Department. A judge ruled there was sufficient evidence to hold Miranda on a charge of abuse of authority and manslaughter pending a trial; his defense requested a dismissal of the charges, and an appeals court was reviewing the appeal as of October. Miranda’s PMOP patrol was participating in a joint operation directed by the National Interinstitutional Security Force (FUSINA), but it reported to the 110th Infantry Brigade.
In August the trial of four armed forces intelligence personnel implicated in the 2014 killings of siblings Ramon Eduardo Diaz Rodriguez and Zenia Maritza Diaz Rodriguez was scheduled to begin in February 2017.
In February a judge issued a warrant for the arrest of PMOP members involved in the shooting of 11-year-old Yoslin Isaac Martinez Rivera in November 2015. As of October the individuals had not been arrested.
Authorities arrested HNP officer, Donis Joel Figueroa Reyes, for the November 2015 torture of three detainees and murder of detainee Jose Armando Gomez Sanchez. The three individuals had been detained for public intoxication but allegedly attempted to escape detention, after which they were handcuffed to the ceiling in the police station and beaten by Figueroa, resulting in Gomez’s death. Figueroa was originally detained in November 2015 but had escaped from custody.
There continued to be reports of violence related to land conflicts and criminal activity in the Bajo Aguan region, but the overall level of violence in the area was far below its 2012 peak. On October 18, Jose Angel Flores, president of the Unified Farm Workers Movement of the Aguan (MUCA) and his colleague Silmer Dionicio George, were killed after leaving a meeting of MUCA leaders. On November 21, the Public Ministry announced arrest warrants for two individuals–Osvin Nahun Caballero and Wilmer Giovanni Fuentes–believed to be involved in the October 18 attack; the ministry stated that the murders appeared to be related to the continuing land conflict. No members of the security forces or private security guards were reported to have been responsible for deaths related to the land conflict. One private security guard of an agricultural company, however, was reportedly killed due to land conflict, and agricultural workers reported at least one other violent encounter between private security guards and agricultural workers as of August.
Organized criminal elements, including narcotics traffickers and local and transnational gangs such as MS-13 and the 18th Street gang, committed murders, extortion, kidnappings, human trafficking, and acts of intimidation against police, prosecutors, journalists, women, and human rights defenders. Major urban centers and drug trafficking routes experienced disproportionate rates of violence. Media reported that as of September 7,176 individuals working in the transportation sector had been killed during the year, often for failing to make extortion payments. The Violence Observatory of the National Autonomous University of Honduras (UNAH) reported that 290 workers from the transportation sector were killed in 2015, a 40 percent increase from 2014.
On May 27, the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions recognized that the government had taken steps to reduce the homicide rate, but urged authorities to do more to protect the right to life and reduce violence. According to the UNAH Violence Observatory, there was no significant change in the overall annual homicide rate in the first six months of the year compared with 2015, which remained at approximately 60 per 100,000 after several years of steep decline. Reports linked many of these homicides to organized crime and gangs.
The HNP reported 40 kidnappings in 2015, a 48 percent decrease from 2014. As of October the HNP projected a further 65 percent decrease in kidnappings during the year. The HNP reported that in 2015 it rescued 28 victims. Nine more were freed through negotiations and partial payment. Kidnappers killed three others. As of October the HNP had rescued 16 victims. The HNP estimated that it prevented 80 million lempiras ($3.2 million) in ransom payments to criminals in 2015. Court cases took on average two years. In one case from 2014, the HNP rescued the victim within 24 hours and arrested a suspect. Further investigation led to two additional arrests. On July 21, all three were sentenced to 20 years in prison.
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
Although the constitution and law prohibit such practices, human rights nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) received complaints of abuse by members of the security forces on the streets and in detention centers. On August 10, the UN Committee Against Torture expressed concern over numerous reports of human rights violations, including torture, by members of the security forces. As of September the National Human Rights Commission (CONADEH) reported 221 complaints implicating members of the security forces or other government officials in torture or other cruel or inhuman treatment, whereas the quasi-governmental National Committee for the Prevention of Torture, Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment (CONAPREV) reported 70 complaints against government officials for human rights violations, the majority relating to detention conditions. The Public Ministry had 49 active torture cases against members of police and military as of October.
In April agents from the Public Ministry’s Technical Agency for Criminal Investigations arrested nine prison guards in Danli, El Paraiso Department, for allegedly torturing an inmate. Media reported that the alleged victim, Carlos Lenin Meza Navas, had lodged a complaint against a guard on February 6 for not permitting him to make an authorized telephone call. The guard and eight of his colleagues subsequently assaulted Navas in his cell, beating him unconscious.
There were reports that criminal gangs tortured individuals.
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
Prison conditions were harsh and sometimes life threatening because of pervasive gang-related violence and the government’s failure to control criminal activity within the prisons. Prisoners suffered from overcrowding, insufficient access to food and water, violence, and abuse by prison officials.
Following a 2014 fire in the Comayagua prison that killed 361 inmates, the National Congress approved the National Prison System Act in 2015, which modified the organization of prisons and mandated the professionalization of police charged with prison administration. In February the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) reported that the country’s prisons still suffered from many of the same problems that contributed to the 2014 Comayagua tragedy. These problems included the delegation of internal controls to prisoners themselves and a corresponding lack of responsible management by prison authorities; overcrowding and deplorable incarceration conditions; and a failure to segregate men and women fully in most prisons.
Physical Conditions: Prisoners suffered from severe overcrowding, malnutrition, lack of adequate sanitation and medical care, and, in some prisons, lack of adequate ventilation and lighting. The Ministry of Human Rights, Justice, Governance, and Decentralization reported that as of August the total prison population was 17,253 in 27 prisons, an 8 percent increase over September 2015. According to the ministry, the system had designed capacity for approximately 10,600 inmates.
The National Prison Institute (INP) reported that as of August 12, 16 inmates had died in prison, 14 from natural causes and two from suicide. Seven inmates were killed outside prison while receiving medical care or on conditional home release. In contrast, CONAPREV reported that 19 prisoners died in altercations between inmates, three committed suicide, and four died from illness.
As of August the Ministry of Human Rights, Justice, Governance, and Decentralization reported that the country’s four pretrial detention centers held 75 individuals. Three of these centers were on military installations, and the other was located on the installations of the HNP’s Special Operations Command (known as COBRAS). The government used pretrial detention centers to hold high-profile suspects and those in need of additional security. The military provided some support services to the three detention centers located on military bases; however, the military neither administered them nor provided guards for the facilities. Instead, the INP oversaw them, as it did other prisons.
Due to overcrowding and lack of adequate training for prison staff, prisoners were subjected to serious abuses, including rape by other inmates. Prisons lacked trained personnel to safeguard the psychological and physical wellbeing of inmates, and some prisons lacked sufficient security personnel.
Many prisoners had access to weapons and other contraband, inmates attacked other inmates with impunity, escapes were frequent, and inmates and their associates outside prison threatened prison officials and their families. These conditions contributed to an unstable, dangerous environment in the penitentiary system. Media reported multiple prison riots and violent confrontations between gang members in prisons throughout the year. Inmates killed several prison guards, including the deputy director of the San Pedro Sula prison, either inside prison facilities or by giving orders that criminal associates on the outside carried out on their behalf.
There were credible reports from human rights organizations that, in addition to subjecting prisoners to isolation and threats, prison officials used excessive force, such as beatings, to control prisoners.
The government held approximately one-half of its female prisoners at a facility for mothers with young children and pregnant women. Others were housed in separate areas of men’s prisons. In the San Pedro Sula prison, for instance, approximately 70 women resided in their own wing of the prison but shared communal space with upwards of 2,900 men. Children up to the age of three could stay with their mothers in prison. Authorities often held pretrial detainees together with convicted prisoners.
Authorities did not segregate those with tuberculosis or other infectious diseases from the general prison population; there was only limited support for persons with mental illnesses or disabilities. CONAPREV reported that every prison had a functioning health clinic with at least one medical professional, except for the National Penitentiary in Francisco Morazan Department. Basic medical supplies and medicines, particularly antibiotics, were in short supply throughout the prison system. In most prisons only inmates who purchased bottled water or had water filters in their cells had access to potable water.
As of August the NGO Casa Alianza said juvenile detention staff reported there were 438 minors (394 boys and 44 girls) in five juvenile detention centers, segregated by gender. CONAPREV, however, reported that 542 boys resided in two juvenile detention centers and the COBRAS pretrial detention center as of August. According to the Directorate of Childhood and Family, 304 youths benefited from alternative sentencing outside the juvenile detention system between January 2015 and August (see section 6, Institutionalized Children).
Administration: The INP, an autonomous agency, managed the country’s adult prisons. The minister of human rights, justice, governance, and decentralization, together with the minister of security, an NGO representative, and a representative of the National Municipal Association formed a committee that supervised the INP. Public defenders and judges sought alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent offenders as a means to alleviate prison overcrowding. Flawed recordkeeping procedures meant that some inmates served more time in prison than their sentences specified.
Prisoners could submit complaints to judicial authorities without censorship and could submit requests for the investigation of inhuman conditions directly to the director of the prison in which they were incarcerated. Directors could then transfer the complaints to the INP director. Prisoners also could file complaints with the INP’s Human Rights Protection Unit, the Public Ministry’s Office of the Special Prosecutor for Human Rights, and the Ministry of Human Rights, Justice, Governance, and Decentralization. CONADEH also took complaints and conducted investigations. The results of investigations by NGOs and government officials were available to the public. CONAPREV reported there were three complaints of torture and mistreatment in detention centers as of September. NGOs reported that some prisoners were reluctant to file official complaints because they did not trust the authorities and there was no effective system for witness protection (also see section 1.c.).
The 2015 Law of Obligatory Labor for Prisoners stipulates that prison populations must engage in at least 400 hours of community service per individual. Officials had not implemented the law, however, with the exception of some minor farming initiatives at the Comayagua prison (also see section 7.b.).
Independent Monitoring: The government generally permitted prison visits by independent local and international human rights observers, including the International Committee of the Red Cross. Faith-based organizations such as the San Pedro Sula-based Roman Catholic Penitentiary Pastoral engaged in small-scale rehabilitation and vocational programs with willing inmates. The Ministry of Human Rights, Justice, Governance, and Decentralization made inspection visits to pretrial detention centers. The Human Rights Protection Unit of the INP made routine inspections of prison facilities and pretrial detention centers. CONAPREV made more than a dozen visits to juvenile detention facilities as of the end of August.
Improvements: In late 2015 the government launched an initiative to reduce prison overcrowding. After reviewing a list of cases recommended by prison administrators, at the end of 2015, the government released approximately 2,000 inmates who had completed their sentences or had already been in pretrial detention for longer than the maximum sentences for their alleged crimes. The government opened two new prisons, with a capacity of 2,300 prisoners.
The Ministry of Human Rights, Justice, Governance, and Decentralization reported that as of July, it had trained 1,100 prisoners in five prisons on human rights, a culture of peace, and their responsibilities under the 2015 National Prison System Act. The Human Rights Protection Unit trained an additional 600 prisoners on their human rights and national and international standards applicable to prisoners.
The INP trained 250 staff members on human rights for prisoners; nondiscrimination; the prevention of torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment; minimum standards for treatment of prisoners; national and international standards applicable to prisoners; and the appropriate use of lethal and nonlethal force.
Antiretroviral treatment programs expanded significantly throughout the prison system, and many HIV-positive patients who were not previously receiving treatment began a course of medication. Testing programs for HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and diabetes improved. On April 27, the Ministry of Human Rights, Justice, Governance, and Decentralization and INP signed an agreement with the Ministry of Health to improve prison health services. As of August the government had hired 18 doctors to staff prisons. CONAPREV reported an increase in technical personnel available to assist prisoners, including public defenders, psychologists, and social workers.
The constitution and law prohibit arbitrary arrest and detention, but human rights NGOs reported that authorities at times failed to enforce these prohibitions effectively. CONADEH reported 12 cases of arbitrary arrest as of September. The Committee of Relatives of the Disappeared in Honduras reported 23 illegal or arbitrary arrests: five by the PMOP, 13 by the HNP, and five by municipal police.
ROLE OF THE POLICE AND SECURITY APPARATUS
The HNP maintains internal security and reports to the Secretariat of Security. The Technical Agency for Criminal Investigations at the Public Ministry (Attorney General’s Office) has legal authority to investigate 21 types of crimes and make arrests. The armed forces, which report to the Secretariat of Defense, are responsible for external security but also exercise some domestic security responsibilities. The PMOP reports to military authorities but conducts operations sanctioned by civilian security officials as well as by military leaders. As of August the PMOP had approximately 3,000 personnel organized into six battalions and was present in all 18 departments. In 2015 a total of 2,400 members of the PMOP received human rights training. FUSINA coordinates the overlapping responsibilities of the HNP, PMOP, National Intelligence Directorate, Public Ministry, and national court system. FUSINA reports to the National Security and Defense Council. The president chairs the council, which includes representatives of the Supreme Court, National Congress, Public Ministry, and Secretariats of Security and Defense.
The armed forces surrendered members accused of human rights violations to civilian authorities. The armed forces sometimes dishonorably discharged such individuals, even before a criminal trial. The Public Ministry, primarily through the Office of the Special Prosecutor for Crimes against Life, is responsible for investigating cases in which a government agent is allegedly responsible for killing a civilian. Prosecutors try such cases in civilian courts. Prosecutors and judges attached to FUSINA prosecute and hear cases related to FUSINA operations. A unit within the Office of the Special Prosecutor for Crimes against Life manages some cases of homicides committed by members of the security forces and government officials. The human rights office of the joint staff of the armed forces investigated allegations of human rights abuses by members of the armed forces.
Corruption and impunity remained serious problems within the security forces. Some members of police committed crimes, including crimes linked to local and international criminal organizations.
On April 11, in response to media reports that high-ranking HNP officers had ordered the killing of senior antinarcotics and anti-money-laundering officials in 2009, 2011, and 2013, the president approved a decree creating the Special Commission in Charge of Purging and Restructuring the HNP. The minister of security heads the commission and oversees the work of three prominent members of civil society and a small group of advisors. The commission has authority to: determine the suitability of HNP officials and dismiss officers without cause, implement a mechanism to follow-up and supervise the evaluation and dismissal processes, pass the personnel records of dismissed police officers suspected of criminal activity to the Public Ministry and the Supreme Auditing Tribunal for review and possible prosecution, and report progress to the president and National Congress on a quarterly basis.
As of mid-December the commission reported that it had evaluated 3,004 HNP officers. The commission recommended that 887 of these be retained, 1,835 dismissed, 256 voluntarily retired, 15 suspended pending further review, and another 11 retained pending further evaluation; many of those dismissed were high-ranking officers. The commission referred 23 of these officers to the Public Ministry for possible criminal prosecution. At the commission’s request, the attorney general formed a special unit to investigate cases that the commission referred to it. The process has led to more dismissals than the previous five efforts undertaken since 1998 combined. The commission still needed to evaluate rank-and-file members of the HNP. The commission said the personnel it recommended for retention remained subject to continued suitability evaluations.
The Human Rights Office of the Honduran Armed Forces reported that as of August, more than 4,500 service members had received human rights training. The Honduran Armed Forces and various NGOs provided the training. The Honduran Armed Forces Cadet Leadership Development course trained approximately 220 cadets on human rights in 2015-16.
ARREST PROCEDURES AND TREATMENT OF DETAINEES
The law provides that police may make arrests only with a warrant, unless they make the arrest during the commission of a crime, there is strong suspicion that a person has committed a crime and might otherwise evade criminal prosecution, they catch a person in possession of evidence related to a crime, or a prosecutor has ordered the arrest. The law requires police to inform persons of the grounds for their arrest and bring detainees before a competent judicial authority within 24 hours. It stipulates that a prosecutor then has 24 additional hours to decide if there is probable cause for indictment, whereupon a judge has 24 more hours to decide whether to issue a temporary detention order. Such an order may be effective for up to six days, after which the judge must hold a pretrial hearing to examine whether there is probable cause to continue pretrial detention. The law allows persons charged with some felonies to avail themselves of bail and gives prisoners a right of prompt access to family members. The law allows the release of other suspects pending formal charges, on the condition that they periodically report to authorities. The government generally respected these provisions. Persons suspected of any of 22 felonies must remain in custody, pending the conclusion of judicial proceedings against them; however, the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court ruled during the year that when a trial is delayed excessively, prisoners may be released on the condition that they continue to report periodically to authorities. The law grants prisoners the right to prompt access to a lawyer of their choice and, if indigent, to government-provided counsel, although authorities did not always abide by these requirements.
Arbitrary Arrest: The Public Ministry reported 35 cases of illegal detention or arbitrary arrest as of October.
Pretrial Detention: Judicial inefficiency, corruption, and insufficient resources delayed proceedings in the criminal justice system, and lengthy pretrial detention was a serious problem. As of August according to the UNAH’s Institute for Democracy, Peace, and Security, 53 percent of the country’s prison population had not been convicted. For crimes with minimum sentences of six years, the law authorizes pretrial detention of up to two years. The prosecution may request an additional six-month extension, but many detainees remained in pretrial detention much longer, including for more time than the maximum period of incarceration for their alleged crime. The law does not authorize pretrial detention for crimes with a maximum sentence of five years or less. The law mandates that authorities release detainees whose cases have not yet come to trial and whose time in pretrial detention already exceeds the maximum prison sentence for their alleged crime. Even so, many prisoners remained in custody after completing their full sentences, and sometimes even after an acquittal, because officials failed to process their releases expeditiously.
Detainee’s Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: Persons are entitled to challenge the legal basis or assert the arbitrary nature of their arrest or detention. Judicial inefficiency, corruption, and insufficient resources delayed proceedings, however, and excessively protracted legal processes were a serious problem.
The constitution and law provide for an independent judiciary, but the justice system was poorly funded and staffed, inadequately equipped, often ineffective, and subject to intimidation, corruption, politicization, and patronage. Low salaries and a lack of internal controls rendered judicial officials susceptible to bribery. Powerful special interests, including organized criminal groups, exercised influence on the outcomes of some court proceedings.
In March the president of the Supreme Court disbanded the National Judicial Council, created in 2013 to implement an evaluation system for judges, for corruption and incompetence. The council had allegedly committed contracting irregularities, nepotism, overvalued travel expenses, and other irregular acts. Prosecutors had already charged the vice president of the council with influence peddling for pressuring a judge to drop money-laundering charges against his cousin. He and other members of the council resigned before the president of the Supreme Court formally disbanded the council.
The law presumes an accused person is innocent. The accused has the right to an initial hearing before a judge, to ask for bail, to consult with legal counsel in a timely manner, to have a lawyer provided by the state if necessary, and to request an appeal. Defendants can receive free interpretation as necessary from the moment charged through all appeals. The law grants the right to a fair public trial, permits defendants to confront witnesses against them and offer witnesses and evidence in their defense, and grants defendants access to government evidence relevant to their case. Authorities generally respected these rights.
Credible observers noted problems in trial procedures such as a lack of admissible evidence, judicial corruption, widespread public distrust of the legal system, and an ineffective witness protection program (some protected witnesses were killed during the year).
POLITICAL PRISONERS AND DETAINEES
There were no reports of political prisoners or detainees.
CIVIL JUDICIAL PROCEDURES AND REMEDIES
The law establishes an independent and impartial judiciary in civil matters, including access to a court to seek damages for human rights violations. Litigants may sue a criminal defendant for damages if authorized by a criminal court. Individuals and organizations may appeal adverse domestic decisions to the Inter-American Human Rights system.
Although the constitution and law generally prohibit such actions, a legal exception allows government authorities to enter a private residence to prevent a crime or in case of other emergency. There were credible complaints that police occasionally failed to obtain the required authorization before entering private homes. As of June the judicial system reported three convictions in 10 alleged cases of illegal entry by government officials.
Ethnic minority rights leaders and farmworker organizations continued to claim that the government failed to redress actions taken by the security forces, government agencies, and private individuals and businesses to dislodge farmers and indigenous people from lands over which they claimed ownership based on land reform laws or ancestral land titles (see section 6, Indigenous People).
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Speech and Press
The constitution and laws provide for freedom of speech and press, with some restrictions, and the government generally respected these rights. A small number of powerful business magnates with intersecting commercial, political, and family ties owned most of the major news media.
Freedom of Speech and Expression: The penal code includes a provision to punish persons who directly, or through public media, incite discrimination, hate, contempt, repression, or violence against a person, group, or organization for reasons of gender, age, sexual orientation, gender identity, political opinion or affiliation, marital status, race or national origin, language, nationality, religion, family affiliation, family or economic situation, disability, health, physical appearance, or any other characteristic that would offend the victim’s human dignity.
CONADEH reported that the government closed 21 media outlets that failed to renew their operating licenses, including major opposition channel Globo TV. Some of these channels were already defunct, while others were attempting to renew their broadcast licenses. Many of the affected journalists continued their reporting at other media outlets. Civil society organizations expressed concerns about the allegedly arbitrary nature of the closures.
Violence and Harassment: There were continued reports of harassment and threats against journalists and social communicators (defined as persons not employed as journalists who served as bloggers or conducted public outreach for NGOs). Reports linked most of these instances of harassment and threats to organized criminal elements and gangs.
Government officials at all levels denounced violence and threats of violence against members of the media and social communicators. UNAH’s Violence Observatory reported no killings of journalists during the first six months of the year, unlike in the previous year, when nine journalists and social communicators were killed. CONADEH, which used a broader definition than UNAH, reported that 64 journalists, social commentators, and owners and employees of media outlets were killed between 2014 and August. Perpetrators were convicted in three of these cases, and 10 cases were being prosecuted. There were many reports of intimidation and threats against members of the media and their families, including from members of the security forces and from organized crime. It was usually unclear whether violence and threats against journalists were linked to their work or were simply products of generalized violence. For example, reporter Felix Molina was shot and wounded in the second of two apparent attempts to rob him on May 2.
Human rights defenders, including indigenous and environmental rights activists, political activists, labor activists, and representatives of civil society working to combat corruption, reported threats and acts of violence. The killing of Berta Caceres in March (see section 1.a.) was the most emblematic of these cases. Other organizations, including the Indigenous Lenca Movement of La Paz, as well as civil society members of the Special Commission reviewing the HNP, and the leadership of the National Anticorruption Council, reported threats linked to their activities. The AFL-CIO’s International Solidarity Center reported threats against several labor leaders, including public-sector labor union leaders (also see section 7.a.).
The Ministry of Human Rights, Justice, Governance, and Decentralization worked to implement the May 2015 Law for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, Journalists, Social Communicators, and Justice Operators but was hampered by weaknesses in the new protection mechanism, including a lack of staff and other resources. On July 11, the UN Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (CESCR) expressed concern that some of the new law’s provisions did not assure effective protection for human rights defenders, and that the resources allocated to the protection mechanism were insufficient to ensure the law’s effective implementation. NGOs generally criticized the measures as ineffective, based on the small number of persons protected, an overreliance on protective measures provided by police (who many protected persons did not trust), and the limited resources provided to protected persons. Civil society also criticized the government’s failure to investigate threats against activists adequately.
The HNP’s Human Rights Office continued to implement protective measures for journalists, social communicators, human rights defenders, labor leaders, and other activists receiving threats. On July 19, the government announced it would allocate an additional 10 million lempiras ($434,000) for protection services, essentially doubling the current budget. During the first six months of the year, the government worked with NGO Freedom House to develop and strengthen implementation of the law. As of July 29, the Ministry of Human Rights, Justice, Governance, and Decentralization had received 39 requests for protection since the law’s approval in April 2015 and accepted 30, which were being processed. The other nine requests were from persons who were already beneficiaries of IACHR-mandated protection measures that the Human Rights Office of the Ministry of Security continued to implement. The Ministry of Security planned to transfer these cases to the protection mechanism once the government established a formal protocol for doing so. The IACHR had 66 outstanding orders for protection in the country. According to NGO ACI Participa, 49 orders between 2006 and 2015 benefited 426 individuals, including 59 indigenous persons, 27 members of the LGBTI community, 28 environmentalists, and 72 journalists.
The HNP’s Violent Crimes Task Force (VCTF) investigated crimes against high-profile and particularly vulnerable victims, including judges, journalists, human rights activists, and members of the LGBTI community. In 2015-16, the VCTF investigated the killings of seven journalists and arrested three suspects in these cases. It also arrested a suspect for the death of a journalist in a prior year, helped bring two other cases to trial, and secured one conviction for the murder of a journalist.
Civil society organizations, including agricultural workers groups and indigenous rights groups, criticized the government and its officials for allegedly criminalizing and stigmatizing social protest. The government charged some members of these groups with trespassing after they occupied disputed land and required them to present themselves to judicial authorities periodically while legal proceedings against them were pending.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Members of media and NGOs said the press self-censored due to fear of retaliation from organized crime or corrupt government officials.
Libel/Slander Laws: Citizens, including public officials, can initiate criminal proceedings for libel and slander. As of November 3, journalists Julio Ernesto Alvarado and David Romero Ellner remained free and continued to practice their profession, despite being convicted of slander in 2015 and ordered to stop practicing journalism temporarily. Alvarado paid a fine to avoid jail time; in December 2015 to comply with a 2014 order from the IACHR, the government rescinded the order that he stop practicing journalism. Romero Ellner received a 10-year prison sentence in March, and the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court denied his final appeal on August 19.
National Security: Reporters without Borders and other civil society organizations continued to express concerns about potential abuse of the law for the Classification of Public Documents Related to Defense and National Security. Beginning in the third quarter of 2015, the government made available to the public some information about activities that the security tax and other trust funds support, and it incorporated trust fund numbers into the current budget. In August the Organization of American States’ Mission Against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (MACCIH) and the semiautonomous Institute for Access to Public Information (IAIP) called for the law’s revision.
Nongovernmental Impact: Some journalists and other members of civil society reported threats from members of organized crime. It was unclear how many of these threats were related to the victims’ professions or activism.
The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, but there were credible reports that the government monitored private online communications. According to estimates compiled by the International Telecommunication Union, in 2015 approximately 20 percent of the population used the internet.
ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS
There were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events.
FREEDOM OF ASSEMBLY
The constitution and law provide for freedom of assembly, and the government generally respected this right. Some local and international civil society organizations, including the Civil Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), alleged that members of the security forces used excessive force to break up demonstrations. On several occasions police used tear gas and water cannons to disperse violent protesters. Authorities temporarily detained protesters wielding rocks, machetes, and other dangerous items but usually released them without pressing charges. Many civil society leaders and organizations condemned a decision by UNAH leaders authorizing police to break up a two-month student sit-in in July. Police briefly detained approximately two dozen protest leaders, and university officials then brought criminal charges against them. As of early December, student protesters and UNAH leadership remained in discussions to address the concerns of all parties, including the judicial proceedings and administrative actions that university officials took against protest leaders.
FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION
The constitution and law provide for freedom of association, and the government generally respected this right. The penal code prohibits illicit association, defined as gatherings by persons bearing arms, explosive devices, or dangerous objects with the purpose of committing a crime, and prescribes prison terms of two to four years and a fine of 30,000 to 60,000 lempiras ($1,300 to $2,600) for anyone who convokes or directs an illicit meeting or demonstration. There were no reports of such cases during the year.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
The constitution and law provide for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights. In practical terms there were areas where authorities could not assure freedom of movement because of criminal activity and a lack of significant government presence.
The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations to provide protection and assistance to internally displaced persons, refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern. UNHCR reported that as of August approximately 280 indigenous persons displaced from Nicaragua remained along the international border in Gracias a Dios Department. The government provided some assistance to this community.
INTERNALLY DISPLACED PERSONS
On April 5, the special rapporteur on the human rights of internally displaced persons welcomed the government’s recognition that internal displacement existed in the country and its acknowledgement that the challenges it presents require research and concerted action to tackle its root causes. UNHCR remained concerned about forced displacement caused by high levels of violence, national and transnational gang activity, human trafficking, and migrant smuggling. The government maintained an interinstitutional commission to address the problem of persons displaced by violence. UNHCR reported that it collaborated extensively with the commission, which monitored displacement and developed policies and programs to prevent displacement and to provide protection to displaced persons, focusing on the most vulnerable persons affected by organized crime and other situations of violence. A 2015 UNHCR report estimated there were between 174,000 and 182,000 internally displaced persons in the country. There were no official numbers for forced displacement in the country, in part because gangs controlled many of the neighborhoods that were sources of internal displacement (see section 6, Displaced Children). Media reported in March that gangs ordered residents of two communities, one in San Pedro Sula and one in Tegucigalpa, to vacate their homes; the government responded by increasing law enforcement operations and presence in the affected neighborhoods. Several communities along the border with El Salvador reported that gangs displaced them by moving into their communities, following increased police action in El Salvador. On July 10, authorities lifted a one-month curfew in the town of Mapulaca, in Lempira Department near the border with El Salvador, after increasing security force activities in the area.
PROTECTION OF REFUGEES
The government cooperated with UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations to provide protection and assistance to refugees and other persons of concern.
Access to Asylum: The law allows for the granting of asylum or refugee status. The government has established a system to provide protection to refugees, but at times there were significant delays in processing provisional permits for asylum applicants.
Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government
The law provides for criminal penalties on public officials for corruption, but authorities did not implement the law effectively. Government institutions were subject to corruption and political influence, and some officials engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. Insufficient internal controls and lack of training in public resource management contributed to the corruption and lack of transparency. The government took steps to address corruption at high levels in government agencies, including arresting and charging members of congress, judges, prosecutors, current and former senior officials, including presidential staffers from previous administrations, mayors and other local authorities, and police officers.
Following large-scale public protests in the spring of 2015 against government corruption, in January the government signed an agreement with the Organization of American States to install the MACCIH. The MACCIH began operations in the country on April 19, with an initial focus on police reform, electoral reform, and emblematic cases of public sector corruption networks.
Former president Rafael Leonardo Callejas Romero (1990-94) was among 16 persons accused of corruption in 2015 for actions related to the International Federation of Association Football scandal. Callejas surrendered to foreign authorities in December 2015, and on March 28, he pled guilty in a foreign court to eight charges of organized crime, fraud, money laundering, and conspiracy to commit money laundering.
Corruption: Prosecutions of public-sector corruption predominantly targeted low-level officials and focused on charges of abuse of authority and misconduct in public office, which were easier to prove but carried lower penalties than illicit enrichment, fraud, and money laundering. Since the 2014 indictment of the entire board of directors of the Social Security Institute (IHSS), however, there was an increase in indictments of higher-level officials. Since 2014 prosecutors had filed charges against 54 persons in the IHSS scandal, including former ministers, business executives, and labor leaders; prosecutors charged many in multiple cases. As of December 20, there had been five convictions related to the IHSS scandal, including prominent business executive Jose Bertetty. Courts issued three of these convictions during the year. Many cases were in the appeals stage (a case can be appealed before it goes to trial). In June 2015 the government brought charges against public officials at the Ministry of Health and employees of the private company Astropharma, including then vice president of the National Congress, Lena Gutierrez, and three members of her family. In August the court of appeals ruled that the case could continue to trial. On August 8, the Financial Crimes Task Force executed a search warrant at LAIN (International Labs) and seized evidence to support a new line of investigation in the Astropharma case. Trial court judges were selected on September 7. On December 16, former IHSS director Mario Zelaya was convicted on firearms charges; he faced trial on seven additional charges including bribery and money laundering.
There were reports that the government’s anticorruption institutions did not take sufficient steps to contain high-level corruption and were unwilling or lacked the professional capacity and resources to investigate, arrest, and prosecute those involved. The civil society organization National Anticorruption Council has an investigative unit of 15 persons. The council receives government funding, which obliges it to disclose the names of its investigators, making them more vulnerable to reprisals. NGOs reported that some individuals who reported public corruption received threats.
In August the domestic NGO (and chapter of Transparency-International), Association for a More Just Society (ASJ) published a report reviewing public corruption in the country for the seven years prior to 2015. The report revealed that during those years the Public Ministry received 3,471 complaints about public corruption and issued 283 indictments. The ASJ tried to review the case files of 165 of the indictments, but it was unable to find 55 case files in the court system. Of the cases it reviewed, nine had resulted in convictions, 29 were resolved without a conviction, and 14 had been open for more than three years without resolution, which the ASJ defined as impunity. In 2015 there were 28 convictions for public-sector corruption, and as of August, there had been 19 such convictions. Among those convicted during the year were two members of Congress, a former government minister, a judge, current and former mayors, and two individuals associated with the IHSS scandal.
Financial Disclosure: Public officials are subject to financial disclosure laws but did not always comply. The law mandates that the Supreme Auditing Tribunal monitor and verify disclosures. The tribunal published its reports on its website and published the names of public officials who did not comply with disclosure laws.
Public Access to Information: The law provides for public access to government information, and the government generally implemented this law effectively. In 2014, however, the National Congress passed a controversial law giving the National Security and Defense Council the authority to classify information that puts national security or defense at risk. NGOs and some members of Congress criticized both the breadth of the law and the manner in which it was approved.
All institutions receiving public funding are required to disclose their expenditures and present an annual report of their activities in the prior year to the National Congress 40 days after the end of the fiscal year. IAIP operated a website through which citizens could request information from government agencies. IAIP is responsible for verifying that government institutions comply with transparency rules and practices for access to public information. In June IAIP reviewed 133 government entities, to include municipalities, on their compliance with transparency regulations. IAIP rated 35 percent of these entities “excellent,” 10 percent “good,” 12 percent “bad,” and 48 percent received its lowest rating of “deficient.” IAIP reported that it sanctioned the entities deemed deficient with fines of up to five minimum salaries ($2,000). In July, IAIP also asked the government to suspend 10 officials without pay for five days whose organizations received deficient ratings, including nine mayors, and the Minister of Education, Marlon Escoto, due to his role as rector of the National Agricultural University.
If a government agency denies a request for public information, the denied party can submit a claim to IAIP, which has the authority to fine entities for failing to comply with legitimate requests.