President Hernandez must end repression of protests in Honduras

With the demonstrations growing louder by the day, he must also put an immediate end to state repression.

honduras protests - Reuters
Demonstrators run away from tear gas during a protest against the government of Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez in Tegucigalpa, Honduras August 7, 2019 [Jorge Cabrera/Reuters]

For over a month, Eblin Noel Corea Maradiaga’s family kept watch over his grave. They took shifts and even installed a light bulb above his concrete tomb to make sure no one would sneak in at night and remove the bullet lodged in his chest. In their tireless quest for justice, the boy’s parents are determined to preserve any evidence that might prove that the Honduran army killed him.

“We watch him night and day. We’re scared they want to conceal their crime and that they’ll come and steal the bullet,” said Eblin’s mother, Erika Maradiaga, in an interview with Amnesty International. 

Eblin died in his father’s arms the same day that President Juan Orlando Hernandez deployed the army to repress anti-government demonstrations.

At least five others were killed and almost 80 injured since the protests broke out in response to controversial health and education reforms on 25 April. The authorities’ excessive use of force violated international law but remains unpunished. This means there is little to deter them from committing more crimes as protests continue to gather pace following a court filing in the United States alleging that Hernández’s 2013 presidential campaign was partly funded by drug traffickers.

A tall, slender 17-year-old with short, dark hair, Eblin had two younger sisters. He was still in school but had repeatedly tried to reach Mexico in the hope of earning money there to support his family.

Speaking at their modest home in Yarumela, a small town best known for its Mesoamerican ruins, Eblin’s father, Eblin Danilo Corea, said his son joined the protests to defend the Honduran people’s rights to health. He was determined to fight for a better country, despite his father’s pleas that he stay home and help him harvest corn.

Instead, on 20 June, Eblin fell victim to Hernandez’s policy of repression. Demonstrators had briefly blocked the dirt road leading into Yarumela with burning tires that afternoon, but they had already dispersed when an army convoy pulled up just after 7pm. Without warning, about 10 heavily armed soldiers disembarked, started shooting at the unarmed civilians in the area, and chased several people, including Eblin and his father. 

“Why did they chase us? Why did they shoot us?” asked Eblin’s father. “We weren’t armed and there was no reason to come after us.”

The pair took refuge in an alley when Eblin’s father saw a soldier kneel, take aim and fire, striking his son in the chest. 

“I stuck my hand in my son’s mouth, trying to make him breathe,” he said, but Eblin died before reaching hospital.

Hours earlier, President Hernandez had ordered the armed forces to quell the dissent flaring up across the country, despite the terrible toll this would have on human rights. Throughout the recent weeks of unrest, security forces used rubber bullets and tear gas indiscriminately against demonstrators, and in some cases – such as Eblin’s – live rounds. This has become a pattern in Honduras, with Hernández’s government also using excessive force and arbitrary detentions to crush the protests against his disputed election in November 2017. 

Determined to achieve justice for Eblin, his family was dismayed when the public prosecutor’s office initially refused to allow trusted forensic personnel to conduct an autopsy. Having kept watch over him for six weeks, they finally exhumed his body on 31 July, after the prosecutor’s office relented. Now they hope that the autopsy – along with other evidence and witness statements – will help the authorities to identify and prosecute the shooter. 

By refusing to accept impunity, Eblin’s family hope they will embolden the families of other victims who have stayed quiet out of fear, and help to prevent more killings.

“Hopefully, some good comes of it,” said Eblin’s aunt, Reina Madariaga. “The death of the boy cannot be in vain.”

Yet the burden should not be on the victims to ensure that justice is done. It is up to the Honduran authorities to end the vicious cycle of impunity that fuels human rights violations. They must investigate any criminal acts committed during the protests without delay and try all those suspected of responsibility in fair trials before ordinary civilian courts.

With the demonstrations growing louder by the day, President Hernandez must also put a complete and immediate end to state repression, abide by international standards on the use of force, and guarantee people’s rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.

Killings like that of Eblin must never be repeated.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.