May 3, 2019

Abelino Chub is free, other Q'eqchi leaders are wrongly imprisoned


If you were following GHRC on social media last week, you will know that last Friday, Maya Q’eqchi' land defender Abelino Chub Caal was absolved of all charges and finally released from jail after being detained more than two years.  The trial illustrated how the criminal justice system in Guatemala is abused to stop the legitimate work of land rights defenders. Read our detailed observation report here and daily bulletins written by Guatemalan organizations here.

Thanks to everyone who took action. More than 500 people signed a petition to Guatemala’s Attorney General Porras about Abelino’s detention, while more than 130 organizations signed a letter demanding the state protect land defenders, not criminalize them.

While Abelino’s trial was happening in Guatemala City, Q’eqchi' fisherman Eduardo Bin faced trial in Puerto Barrios and in Coban, Q’eqchi' teacher Bernardo Caal attended a hearing.  Below you will find a more detailed description of the three cases, a small representation of hundreds of Q'eqchi land and environmental defenders victim to false and malicious prosection, a form criminalization.   Before his case was moved to a high-risk court in Guatemala City, Abelino Chub faced a Puerto Barrios courtroom.  Judges in Coban and Puerto Barrios, where Maya Q’eqchi’ land defenders are most often processed, have repeatedly, and illegally, barred public hearings, pursued prosecution against recommendations of prosecutors, and routinely applied pretrial detention in an abusive and illegal manner that amounts to arbitrary detention.



Eduardo Bin has been in pretrial detention since June 2018, accused of land occupation because, like Abelino, he assisted a Q’eqchi' community in a government dialog table. The verdict in Eduardo Bin's case will be delivered today Friday, May 3. Next week, Eduardo will face a second, unrelated trial, responding to charges brought by the CGN nickel mining company in retaliation for fisherman’s protests against contamination of Izabal Lake.  The same judge, Anibal Arteaga, who ordered Abelino’s case to go to trial and for him to remain in pretrial detention, also presided over the preliminary hearings in Eduardo’s case.



Watch the verdict and Abelino’s statement here.

In peace,

The Guatemala Human Rights Commission



Three Q'eqchi Land and Environmental Defenders Face Trials,
Abelino Chub is Freed, but Bernardo Caal and Eduardo Bin remain wrongly imprisoned

Background: Abelino Chub Caal Freed after 812 Days of Arbitrary Detention

On Friday, April 26,  the High-Risk Court “A” in Guatemala City found Abelino Chub Caal, a Maya Q’eqchi' land defender, not guilty of all charges related to an alleged land occupation in the Plan Grande farm in the municipality of El Estor, Izabal, on August 7, 2016.  

In their ruling, the judges noted that the prosecution could not even prove a crime was committed, much less that Abelino was responsible for it. The Tribunal said that Abelino had been unjustly charged and noted with the concern that, ”Criminal law is being used to criminalize.” The three judge panel ordered the Public Prosecutor’s Office to open an investigation into the irregularities found in the public registry of the land, which called into question the legitimacy of the land title on which the land occupation charges were based. The Bufete de los Pueblos Indigenas, 2018 recipient of the Alice Zachmann Human Rights Award, were Abelino's defense lawyers.

This confirmed to many that the criminal charges were spurious and, like UN Special Rapporteur for the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz found during her mission to Guatemala in May 2018, private companies often act in collusion with local prosecutors and judges. When human rights defenders assisting communites with competeing land and resource rights are imprisoned, these companies benefit from false prosecution with weak evidence and uncorroborated witness testimonies.

Abelino’s case is one example in a widespread pattern of abuse of the Guatemalan judicial system.  Regional courts, especially in areas like Puerto Barrios and Coban, are deeply impacted by corruption associated with organized crime networks.  Judges allow false charges against human rights and environmental defenders to advance, ordering arrests and pretrial detention without sufficient evidence to substantiate the charges.  As an expert witness in Abelino Chub’s trial, Ramon Cadena, Director of the Central America Regional Office of the Geneva- based International Commission of Jurists, described the use of false prosecutions as a means to block human rights defender’s legitimate defense of communities subject to abuses.

Arrested on February 4, 2017, Abelino spent close to 27 months in pre-trial detention, charged with land occupation, arson, and criminal conspiracy. Guatemalan law mandates pretrial release for these charges, unless it is demonstrated that the accused is a flight risk.  In the initial hearing, the equivalent of an arraignment, the Public Prosecutor’s Office asked for all charges to be dropped due to lack of evidence. Puerto Barrios Judge Anibal Arteaga disregarded the prosecutor’s recommendation, siding with the lawyers representing CXI and Cobra Investments, banana and palm companies, who acted as private prosecutors in the case.  After being found not-guilty of all charges, Abelino Chub Caal noted, “I wasn’t facing a court, I was facing the powers-that-be that have had the Q’eqchi' people on their knees.” Cadena called for an investigation into Judge Arteaga’s lack of impartiality and independence.

Abelino had the opportunity to address the court and public following the verdict. “Thank you to everyone who has been in solidarity during this process that I unjustly had to face.”  He pointed out that many other Maya Q’eqchi’ land defenders have been wrongly accused and criminally charged. He pointed out that Bernardo Caal, who was arbitrarily sentenced to more than 7 years for defending the Oxec and Cahabon Rivers from hydroelectric projects remains in a prison in Coban and that members of the Artesanal Fisher’s Guild and journalists reporting on the contamination of Lake Izabal  provoked by the CGN nickel mine in El Estor, are still facing unjust criminal processes. He also noted that the people who murdered well known Q’eqchi’ teacher and land defender Adolfo Ich, also denouncing the CGN nickel company, walk free.

Abelino was finally released from the zone 18 preventive jail more than 24 hours later, where he was received by his family, colleagues and lawyers. The complete written sentence will be delivered on May 6th.


Bernardo Caal: Hearing held behind closed doors

Bernardo Caal Xol is a Q’eqchi' teacher from Alta Verapaz who was sentenced to seven years and four months in November 2018 by a court in Coban for theft and illegal detention. The courts in Coban, capital of Alta Verapaz, have regularly demonstrated a lack of transparency, independence and impartiality. Just last week in a pre-trial hearing related to a second set of spurious charges against Bernardo the presiding judge removed the press from the courtroom and conducted a closed-door hearing at the request of the Public Prosecutor’s Office. At that hearing, Bernardo denounced the “Cartel of the Togas” in reference to what he calls a “criminal gang” of  judges, public prosecutors, litigators, and the bureaucracy of the justice system, that work in different parts of the country to advance malicious prosecution of land defenders and ancestral authorities.

Bernardo Caal, as a member of an affected Q’eqchi' community, presented a successful legal challenge, in collaboration with the environmental NGO Madre Selva in December 2015.  The complaint accuses the state of illegally granting licenses for the Oxec hydroelectric dam without prior consultation with the communities affected.  Just a few weeks later, the Supreme Court sided with Caal and after a series of appeals, in May 2017 the Constitutional Court, reaffirmed the Supreme Court’s decision.  The hydroelectric permits were suspended pending consultation with the indigenous community. In August 2017, Q’eqchi’ communities in the municipality of Santa Maria Cahabon, where the dams are located, organized a community referendum where more than 26,000 people voted against the implementation of the project; 12 voted in favor, clearly showing the opposition to the implementation of the projects. A few months later, Bernardo was arrested.

In a clear act of retribution for the defense of his community’s water rights, in 2016 prosecutors in the city of Coban filed entirely spurious criminal charges against Bernardo.  They claimed he had committed fraud by collecting his teachers salary while not teaching in the classroom. At that time he had been elected to serve in the Central Committee of the teachers union for the department of Alta Verapaz. Under the terms of the teachers’ collective bargaining agreement, Central Committee members are allowed paid workdays to conduct union businesses.  No complaints were made against any of the other Central Committee members who were temporarily out of the classroom, demonstrating that Bernardo was targeted because of his success as a human rights and environmental defender.

In December 2017, Bernardo attended a pre-trial hearing related to those charges, but was arrested while leaving the courthouse on separate charges of illegal detention and robbery. These charges were related to a meeting held on October 15, 2015 when communities impacted by the Oxec hydroelectric dam gathered in an empty lot beside a road.  Thousands of Q'eqchi attended the meeting; the crowd spilled across the road. Prosecutors allege that a truck with workers from the cable television company Netzone, which has contracts with the Oxec dam, were unable to pass through the crowd for three hours, and that during this time items in the pick-up’s open bed were stolen. Prosecutors claim that Bernardo Caal spoke at the meeting and that as a leader of the Q’eqchi' communities, he is responsible for detaining the workers in their car for three hours and for the robbery of items from the truck bed.

Bernardo’s lawyers explain that witnesses provided contradictory evidence.  For example, a witness first claimed he had seen Bernardo direct the crowd, then later stated he had first learned of Bernardo’s participation in the meeting weeks later when he recognized him from a photograph in a newspaper article.  Or, in another example, after stating all of their belongings were taken from the bed of the pick up truck, a cable employee later stated that after arriving in Guatemala City they realized some things were missing from the truck bed. The alleged victims claim they were detained at 8:30am, but photographic evidence places their truck and hour away at that time, and evidence established that Bernardo Caal was not at the meeting at that time.  No witnesses claimed that Bernardo had stolen items or blocked the truck.

Nonetheless, in November 2018 Bernardo Caal was sentenced to more than 7 years in prison by Coban Judge Walter Fabricio Rosales Hernandez.  Though Caal’s lawyers are appealing the sentence, the Coban courts are particularly slow, so it is expected that the case will not reach courts in Guatemala City for another year and a half.  

Despite the outcry against the Oxec and Renace projects, the companies are moving forward. In August, 2018, Indigenous Maya K'iche journalist Rolanda de Jesus Garcia Hernandez was attacked and robbed of her equipment by people allegedly related to the Oxec hydroelectric project while she reporting on illegal logging near the Cahabon river.

Eduardo Bin: May 3 sentencing for occupying land he visited once  

Eduardo Bin Pouu is a Maya Q’eqchi' fisherman who grew up along the shores of Lake Izabal in a community called San Pablo in the municipality of El Estor.  Approximately 17 years ago palm oil corporations moved into the Polochic Valley, where Q’eqchi' communities had long been arbitrarily denied land titles they had rights to.  Eduardo Bin explains that part of San Pablo’s land was appropriated by the NaturAceite Corporation to plant palm in 2005, followed by a violent eviction in which San Pablo’s homes and crops burnt.  The company continued to divide the community, promising reduce land titles to those who would expel leaders defending the community’s full land rights. As a result the community was divided into San Pablo 1 and San Pablo 2.  Eduardo was identified as a community leader and accused of leading the resistance. His family was targeted with extreme violence, his brother was killed and women in his family were assaulted, and they were forced to flee.

Displaced to the town of El Estor, Eduardo made a living from fishing. He was recognized in the region for his ability to understand land rights issues and dialog with State officials.  As a result Eduardo had been selected to represent indigenous communities impacted by the Cerro San Gil protected area in a community - state dialog space they referred to as the Consortium for Protected Areas. The community of Aguas Caliente, like most historic Q’eqchi' communities, had been denied title to their lands when the Cerro San Gil National Park was created, and the community came under threat of eviction.  Eduardo, because of his position in the Consortium, was asked to participate in State backed “dialogue tables” with government officials about a land issues after Aguas Caliente evicted in 2016. He participated in a visit the Aguas Calientes community to verify the events surrounding the eviction. This was the one and only time Eduardo Bin says he visited the community of Aguas Calientes.

On  June 29, 2018 Eduardo was illegally detained by plain clothed men who forced him into a black SUV as he was leaving a meeting in El Estor.  The Fisher’s Guild, where Eduardo serves as Vice- President, immediately organized a protest at the local police station. Police told his colleagues that Eduardo had not been arrested, he had been kidnapped.  Alarmed, the Fisher’s Guild and human rights organizations quickly released alerts and demanded state authorities identify his whereabouts. Later that day Eduardo appeared in a police holding cell in Santo Tomas. He had been charged with occupying a protected area, charges filed by FUNDAECO, the state-backed Foundation for Eco Development.  Last week Eduardo’s trial for occupation of protected areas ended. The verdict will be delivered May 3.

In addition to the land occupation charges, Bin is one of four fishermen facing malicious prosecution by the CGN nickel company in El Estor and will face trial beginning on May 8 for illegal detention, threats and instigation to commit a crime. Other members of the Fisher’s Guild, Cristobal Pop, Tomas Che and Vicente Rax, as well as local journalist Carlos Choc, have also been charged for illegal detentions. All the charges are related to a protest on May 3-4, 2017 that was organized after representatives of Guatemala’s Natural Resources Ministry did not show up for a meeting scheduled to review contamination charges the fishermen had levied against the CGN nickel mine. On May 27, 2017, another protest was organized and this time, a member of the Fisher’s Guild, 27-year-old Carlos Maaz Coc, was killed by special forces of the National Civil Police.  There have been no arrests for his murder.


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