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Protests and Rights Abuses Continue in Honduras. And the Band Plays On

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On September 15, Honduran independence day, crowds gathered in a central park in San Pedro Sula to celebrate. They were also protesting violations of human rights that have taken place since the coup on June 28, 2009, and that continue despite the November 2009 elections won by Porfirio Lobo.

"The crowd was waiting for a concert to begin, when, from all four corners of the park, tear gas bombs began exploding, shots were fired, and terror filled the streets," recounted Gilda Rivera of the Center for Women's Rights (CDM). The police blasted water hoses and lobbed tear gas at the crowd. They destroyed the musical instruments and sound equipment of a musical band, Café Guancasco, and according to the band, brutally beat one of the young musicians. "Many children, men and women were hospitalized because of the tear gas," said Rivera.

Rivera and Bertha Oliva of the Committee for the Detained and Disappeared (COFADEH), Wilfredo Méndez of the Center for the Investigation and Promotion of Human Rights (CIPRODEH), Juan Almendares Bonilla of the Center for the Prevention, Treatment and Rehabilitation of Victims of Torture and their Families (CPTRT), and Gilberto Ríos of the Honduran chapter of FoodFirst Information and Action Network (FIAN) were in Washington, DC on October 13 to receive from the Institute of Policy Studies the Letelier-Moffitt human rights award. These organizations and the Committee for the Defense of Human Rights in Honduras (CODEH) make up the Honduran Human Rights Platform, which came together to address the human rights emergency in the aftermath of the 2009 coup that overthrew the government of Manuel Zelaya. Zelaya is still in exile.

"Every day we are subjected to persecution, threats, internal displacement, exile, torture, and murder," said Bertha Oliva.

Since the inauguration of Porfirio Lobo, threats and attacks against human rights defenders, journalists, union leaders and activists continue unabated. In the first six months of the year, eight activists were assassinated. Honduras ranked third in the world for number of assassinated trade unionists in 2009, according to the International Trade Union Confederation. Attacks against members of the LGBT community, which had escalated since the coup continued in 2010. From March 1 to the middle of June, seven Honduran broadcast journalists were shot to death. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, "the government is fostering a climate of lawlessness that is allowing criminals to kill journalists with impunity."

The government's denial that anything is happening makes the situation much worse. "I guarantee that in all of them there is nothing to indicate that it is because of their journalistic work," the security minister was quoted as saying in May. As a result of the government's failure to acknowledge the problem and investigate the cases, the Committee to Protect Journalists says, "many journalists fear the murders have been conducted with the tacit approval, or even outright complicity, of police, armed forces, or other authorities."

Often, the violence is described as just part of a general pattern of drug mafia violence. "We need the international community to understand this," said Gilberto Ríos. "Yes, we have serious problems of violence caused by drug traffickers in our country. But this shouldn't make us ignore a pattern of threats, attacks and assassinations that are directed at those who are in the opposition movement."

With the June 2009 coup, the rule of law and basic human rights protections in Honduras, weak to begin with, were further eroded, as detailed in a May 2010 report by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). Police and military felt empowered to violate rights, and the institutions intended to protect the citizenry dramatically failed to do their job.

The Lobo government has hired a human rights point person and created a human rights unit in the justice department, but these mechanisms have so far failed to translate into results, according to the members of the human rights platform.

When the Honduran government vigorously investigates threats and attacks against activists; suspends and prosecutes police and military implicated in such attacks; implements the protection measures for activists and journalists ordered by the IACHR, and ends arbitrary detentions and repression of peaceful protest -- then there can be said to be progress.

Hondurans are urged to move on, reconcile.

"We want to reconcile, we want our families to be reunited, of course," explained CIPRODEH's Wilfredo Méndez. "But the path towards reconciliation is through justice."

This month, concerts are planned for San Pedro Sula and Tegucigalpa to raise funds for new musical instruments and a new sound system for Café Guancasco. In Honduras, the music, along with the rights abuses and social protest, continues.