If there was one watershed moment after the military coup in Honduras, it was this. Just one week after the coup ousted and forced President Manuel Zelaya into exile at gunpoint, he attempted to return to his country by plane. A crowd of thousands peacefully gathered at Tegucigalpa’s airport on July 5, 2009 to welcome him back but his plane was prevented from landing by military tanks blocking the runway. The military placed sharpshooters on buildings above the crowd. Around the time that Zelaya’s plane came into sight, the military opened fire, and shot 19-year-old Isis Obed Murillo in the head. Despite the efforts of fellow protestors to save him, he died before reaching the hospital.
This horrific story does not end there. Following Isis’ death, his family was subjected to extreme threats, harassment and surveillance by Honduran police and military. A police helicopter flew low above the Murillos’ home on multiple occasions with weapons drawn and on at least one occasion fliers were dropped threatening the family that what happened to Isis would happen to them. Family members also received similar death threats via text messages and phone calls. His sister was routinely followed to her work at a bank by someone who took her picture, to the point that she was fired. The family was forced to move out of their community to escape the constant threats and surveillance. At one point, when Isis’ father attempted to attend a remembrance for Isis that was taking place in Tegucigalpa, the police forced him off the public bus on its way to the capital, and he was unable to attend. No official investigation ever took place into the shooting of their son and brother.
Last night, attorneys at my organization, the Center for Constitutional Rights, filed a motion in a human rights case we brought on behalf of Isis’s family against the leader of the coup regime, Roberto Micheletti. The motion details the atmosphere of total impunity in Honduras for human rights violations committed since the coup and the systemic attacks on the resistance movement – and urges a U.S. court to allow the case to move forward here.
Isis was among the first victims in what became a systematic, bloody attack on the resistance movement amidst a climate of brutal repression. For the first six months of this attack on the Honduran people, Roberto Micheletti Bain was the de facto head of state and as such exercised authority over the Honduran government, the military, and the Honduran National Police. He oversaw the militarization of Honduras through roadblocks throughout the country, and the use of the military to suppress public demonstrations and shut down media outlets. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, in a report issued about the Honduran coup, noted that “security forces conducted thousands of unlawful and arbitrary detentions” and that because of prison conditions and disproportionate use of force on the resistance, “thousands of [people] were subjected to inhuman, cruel and degrading treatment and even torture.” Human rights prosecutors in the Attorney General of Honduras’s office have noted that under Micheletti, the military’s lack of cooperation with investigations into abuse was absolute and that Micheletti was responsible for a total failure to hold subordinates accountable for grave human rights abuses.
In June 2011, the Center for Constitutional Rights, in partnership with the Honduran-based Committee of Relatives of the Disappeared in Honduras (COFADEH, Spanish: Comité de Familiares de Detenidos Desaparecidos en Honduras), launched a human rights case in U.S. courts against Micheletti, specifically for the death of Isis Obed Murillo. The complaint also details the widespread repression against political opposition that took place under Micheletti. CCR is bringing the case under the Alien Tort Statute (ATS), a statute that gives non-U.S. citizens the right to file suits in U.S. courts for international human rights violations. The ATS provides a way to hold human rights abusers accountable when the country where the abuse took place is unable or unwilling to do so. The suit was filed in Texas because Micheletti owns properties in Texas, which CCR argues are substantial enough to give Texas courts jurisdiction over a case against Micheletti.
An ATS case in the United States is one of the few avenues for justice that the Murillos currently have. The very same individuals involved in the coup regime still hold power in Honduras, and attacks have continued under the government of Porfirio Lobo. No one has been held criminally liable for the scores of politically motivated killings and other human rights violations that took place under Micheletti. In fact, Micheletti’s own filings in CCR’s human rights lawsuit reveal the continuing barriers to accountability: his attorneys included a statement by a Special Prosecutor in Honduras asserting that Honduras does not hold Micheletti responsible for Isis Obed Murillo’s death, despite the lack of a full investigation. According to an expert declaration submitted by Human Rights Watch researcher Tamara Broner in support of the Murillos’ case, little to no progress has been made in investigating the violence that has taken place since the coup.
Despite the ongoing violence and human rights abuses in Honduras, the United States has been working in public and behind the scenes to normalize relations with the coup regime. This is 180 degrees from the U.S. government’s initial response. Another document filed by Micheletti in his motion to dismiss was a September 2011 letter from the U.S. embassy revoking his visa because of “the continued resistance of the de facto government to accept the San Jose Agreement and the continuous failure to restore the democratic and constitutional government in Honduras.” Yet now the State Department is reportedly willing to reinstate visas for Honduran officials who were involved in the coup.
The Obama Administration’s actions make clear that there is little interest in recognizing and supporting the Honduran peoples’ demand for accountability for the human rights atrocities that have taken place and continue to take place there. The U.S. has been the loudest voice in this hemisphere in support of the illegitimately elected President Porfiro Lobo and successfully lobbied the Organization of American States to recognize the Lobo government. Secretary Clinton made readmission a priority during her meetings with Latin American heads of state in the two years following the coup. In fact, just this past October, President Lobo said, “The United States is our most important foreign ally, it’s our strongest relationship.” And it’s no wonder, really—apart from all of its diplomatic and political support, the U.S. also provides funding to the Honduran military and police, who have been implicated in numerous grave human rights abuses, including assassinations, kidnappings, excessive use of force – including firing live ammunition on peaceful protestors – and, recently, the burning and bulldozing of nearly the entire town of Rigores this past summer.
The U.S. has a moral and legal responsibility to change course and support the brave and resilient movement for democracy in Honduras that is under attack. Our political system must immediately cut off all funding for Honduran police and military, who continue to abuse their power without consequence. And our court system must allow Alien Tort Statute claims to proceed in situations where justice is not possible in the country where the abuse took place. We hope our case will help bring justice where it has been denied.
Laura Raymond is Advocacy Program Manager at the Center for Constitutional Rights