Harsh New Law Gags Potential Protesters in Honduras

Peaceful protesting is now among the most illegal acts one can carry out in Honduras, thanks to a new law approved by the Honduran National Congress on September 19.

Using the excuse of public safety, the U.S.-backed Honduran government passed a law that allows for organizers of demonstrations to be imprisoned for 20 years and for regular protesters to be sentenced to 15 years in prison. The law applies regardless of the reason for the demonstrations.

The government has been cracking down on anti-government, pro-democracy and anti-business activists for some time; this new law is just the latest of many moves that started back in 1963, when the country was plunged into a dark period of two decades of military rule. It eased somewhat after that regime was restructured, but it has quickly reverted under a U.S. orchestrated narco-state.

The Honduran government has become perhaps the most oppressive ever under the latest regime, the result of an overthrow of former reformist president Manuel Zelaya in 2009 in a coup supported by the Obama administration. Among Zelaya’s many actions was trying to convene a constituent assembly to rewrite the constitution, raise the minimum wage and install a number of liberal reforms. He was ousted by a military court with the full backing and support of the U.S. government.

The current government, headed by Juan Orlando Hernández, is considered one where private industry and the government are locked together at the hip. Their cause: doing whatever is right for big business, regardless of harm to the environment and with cash bribes allegedly changing hands at the highest levels of government.

With projects like hydroelectric dams and major tourism endeavors representing the cause of big business, the Honduran government either looks the other way or easily approves them, regardless of the damage they often cause to the lives of indigenous peoples in the country. Those most affected are rarely consulted in advance of a project’s start.

All of this leaves protesting as one of the last available options for individuals to register their complaints against business and government actions of this kind. Unfortunately, however, protesting to date has proven dangerous – and sometimes deadly – for those involved.

One of the most notorious of these cases involved Berta Cáceres, a highly vocal environmental activist. She protested the construction of an environmentally destructive hydroelectric dam being built within her community. Among the many bases for her protests was her claim that the dam would damage a sacred and critically important water source for the community.

Cáceres raised considerable international support for her protests, along with the rallying of many others in the country. She even won the Goldman Environmental Prize for conducting a series of protests that eventually stopped the construction of a major river dam.

Cáceres also drew attention from the government that allegedly included, according to an investigation by The Guardian, having her name added to a military hit list including several other environmental activists. According to reports, that hit list, which was distributed to special elite and U.S.-trained special forces units of the Honduran military, included the names and photographs of dozens of environmental and social activists in the country.

On March 3, 2016, Cáceres was assassinated by unknowns apparently linked to those military units.

Since Cáceres’ murder, there have been at least seven more activists killed, apparently for protesting similar issues.

Student protesting has also become a major source of activism in the country in recent times. It, too, has felt strong opposition from the government and the police. A series of university protests, which started last year as tuition fees spiked, were dispersed by police using armored vehicles and tear gas. This year, as many as 30 students were jailed for damaging the property of the National Autonomous University of Honduras (UNAH). Others have committed to hunger strikes.

Just as in the case of the environmental activists, the student protests drew death threats and killings as ways in which the government and its co-conspirators responded to what the students were doing. The father of a student who was jailed in one of these incidents was murdered on June 23, 2017, soon after he openly criticized state-led repression. And less than three weeks later, one of the leaders of the student movement at UNAH, Luís Joel Rivera Perdomo, was assassinated as well. His family then had to leave the region after receiving death threats.

The new law makes pushing back against protesters much easier, with jail time of as much as 20 years assigned with little more legal effort than the stroke of a pen. This kind of blocking of what should be the rights of any civil society is an affront to humanity everywhere. It will take all of humanity to expose it, call it out and fight for what is right within the country to stop the repression.

The growing fascism and abuse of the population in Honduras was made possible by the United States and continues to be quietly supported by Washington.

In the United States, the federal and some state governments are waging their own war against dissent, continue to jail protesters and journalists trying to cover protests and are continually trying to pass ever more heinous laws in violation of the U.S. Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.