The Long Judicial Arm of the Honduran Coup

02/04/2015 04:10 pm ET | Updated Apr 05, 2015

Seven weeks after the 2009 military coup that deposed democratically-elected president of Honduras Manuel Zelaya, a judge named Mario Chévez de La Rocha was parking his car near a mall in San Pedro Sula, the country's second biggest city. As demonstrators protesting the coup marched by, police and military showed up and without warning started physically attacking them. When he saw officers beating up old people, Chévez walked up and identified himself as a judge--and was promptly arrested and detained for four hours. He was never notified of why he'd been detained, his arrest was never officially recorded, and he was only released when a writ of habeas corpus was filed. Afterward, in a conversation with work colleagues, he allegedly bemoaned that because of the Honduran Supreme Court's support for the coup, he "felt ashamed" to be part of the judiciary. The post-coup regime filed disciplinary charges against him, and he was dismissed.

Mario Chévez is one of four Honduran judges and magistrates who were fired for opposing the coup, three of whom have never been reinstated--despite serious international pressure. Since then they have received death threats, been intimidated by the police, and experienced regular harassment. On February 2 and 3, their case was heard in Costa Rica before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. The Honduran government's refusal to reinstate the judges underscores the long arm of the 2009 coup and the continuing absence of the rule of law in its aftermath. Most clearly, it illustrates current President Juan Orlando Hernández's clear lack of political will in addressing the country's crisis of human rights, criminal justice, and corruption. Yet the Obama administration continues to shore up, even celebrate Hernandez.

The June 2009 military coup, itself a criminal act, blew apart the rule of law in Honduras--never solid before the coup. The police are now "rotten to the core," in the 2011 words of Alfredo Landaverde, a prominent former congressmember and police inspector gunned down soon after. Members of the military are also allegedly linked to drug traffickers and organized crime. Both continue to commit terrifying human rights abuses with impunity. Meanwhile, many public prosecutors and members of the judiciary are known to have ties with criminals as well, as do significant chunks of congress and top government officials. "The institutions responsible for providing public security continue to prove largely ineffective and remain marred by corruption and abuse," Human Rights Watch writes in its 2015 country report on Honduras, "while efforts to reform them have made little progress."

The four deposed judges who sought to uphold the rule of law, by contrast, are still being punished for doing so. Tirza del Carmen Flores Lanza, for example, was one of seven judges, prosecutors, and human rights defenders who presented an amparo, or official appeal for constitutional remedy, before the Honduran Supreme Court two days after the coup. She also joined 14 others in filing a criminal complaint against members of the country's high military command and congress, for their role the coup. She was dismissed by a kangaroo court abounding in irregular procedures. Judge Adán Guilllermo López Lone joined a demonstration of 200,000 against the coup on his day off, as a private individual, and was dismissed almost immediately through similarly bogus procedures. The fourth was fired for expressing his opinion regarding the need to defend democracy and the rule of law, although he was eventually reinstated. "The firing of these judicial professionals was without a doubt one of the most accurate blows to the rule of law," writes Fr. Ismael Moreno, the Jesuit intellectual and director of Radio Progreso and the Jesuit research center ERIC, "because the decision [to fire them] struck at the heart of justice, giving proof of the country's high level of impunity."

In March 2014, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights ruled in favor of the four judges, passing their case upward to the Inter-American Court, the highest-level judicial body under the rubric of the Organization of American States. It's the first time a coup-related case has made it to this high level.

The judges' case speaks to basic issues in post-coup Honduras, where impunity reigns for crimes of all sorts and the rule of law barely exists. You can now kill anyone you want, and most likely nothing will happen to you. It speaks to the government's ongoing repression of civil liberties, including freedom of speech and freedom of association. Most specifically, it speaks to the country's lack of judicial independence. While the current government has finally begun investigating and charging some judges with corruption, the Association of Honduran Judges for Democracy notes with alarm that it is doing so without following clear, legal procedures--in turn deliberately striking fear into the remaining clean judges, who now fear arbitrary dismissal as well a threats from criminals.

Current President Juan Orlando has a long and continuing record of subverting the rule of law himself. He was the head of a congressional committee that approved the 2009 coup. In December 2012, as President of Congress, he lead the famous "technical coup" in which he deposed four members of the Supreme Court and named new ones, loyal to him, the next day--completely illegally. In the summer of 2013 he was key to the illegal naming of a new Attorney General to a five-year term. His presidential campaign and subsequent administration this past year have been built around a new, 5,000-strong military police force, in violation of the Honduran constitution, which prohibits military involvement in policing except in emergencies.

Yet the Obama administration is pouring money into backing up the regime, and looking the other way at its human rights abuses and subversion of the rule of law. On January 29, the White House announced that it is requesting a whopping one billion dollars in special funding for Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. The U.S. Congress, by contrast, has been vocal in challenging the administration's support for the post-coup government. In May, 2014, 108 Members of Congress signed a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry sponsored by Representative Janice Schakowsky (D-Illinois) questioning U.S. funding for the Honduran police and military, given their ongoing record of human rights abuses with impunity.

Rather than reward the dangerous Hernández regime for subverting the rule of law and punishing those who uphold it, the United States should publicly and forcefully demand the immediate reinstatement of the four judges--along with restoration of full back pay and all privileges--as a baby step toward restoring judicial independence in Honduras. More deeply, it should cut all police and military aid to the country, and stop celebrating its leaders as viable partners. Let's end the chilling fiction that President Hernández is somehow part of the solution to the dire crisis in Honduras--and acknowledge, instead, that he remains central to the problem itself.