The judges in the Criminal Division of the Supreme Court of Justice of Honduras rendered their decision on Novemeber 5 in the case of Jose Isabel “Chavelo” Morales, partially siding with his lawyers’ appeal.
Chavelo is the political prisoner from the Campesino Movement of the Aguán (MCA in its Spanish acronym) in the peasant farming community of Guadalupe Carney in Trujillo, Colon. In 2008 he had been arrested for the murder of family members of a rich landowner who had started a land war with the campesinos after usurping land which, by law, the MCA were entitled to. With no real investigation and relying on hearsay evidence by the rich landowner, Chavelo was convicted of one count of murder.1
Chavelo’s lawyers immediately appealed asking for the nullification of the conviction and sentencing and for his immediate release. The appeal cited the Constitutional infractions that occurred during Chavelo’s incarceration. He was held for well over two years before his sentencing, a clear violation of the Penal Code of Honduras. It also cited that the conviction and sentencing were rendered without the existence of any concrete evidence of Chavelo’s involvement in the murder. The judges annulled the conviction and the 20-year sentence and they ordered that he be released from prison, but they have returned the case to the lower court in Trujillo for retrial. Most significantly, Chavelo can remain free during this new process.
This huge, though incomplete victory comes after months of pressure on the magistrates of the Court. In February, Caminata, Paso a Paso was organized by several social movement organizations. Over 400 people took part, most walking 200 kilometers (124 miles) for eight days. They reached their destination and spent the night in the plaza in front of the National Congress demanding not just Chavelo’s release, but also the abolishment of new pro-mining legislation and the annulment of a decree from the Congress that gave the go ahead for the creation of “Model Cities”. More on the caminata can be found at Step by Step: Honduras Walks for Dignity and Justice.
With the threat of over 400 people converging on the Court, the magistrates of the Criminal Division agreed to a meeting with Chavelo’s lawyer plus one of his brothers and three Human Rights Observers. Magistrate Jacobo Calix stated that they had a backlog of two years of cases and that it would be that long before they reviewed Chavelo’s case. After hearing the statements made, Calix agreed to have an initial hearing in a month. This initial hearing proved to be little more than a formality, but now the law stated that they had within six months to convene the next hearing.
Six months came and went. During that time, a campaign of letters, phone calls and petitions to the Supreme Court ran through out social networks. This was an international campaign in which activists from all over the world were getting signatures on petitions from as far away as Australia and Taiwan. There were on-line petitions in Spanish, French and two in English that received over 2000 signatures and an additional 1500 signatures were on paper petitions passed around street demonstrations in Honduras. Human Rights observers from Germany Switzerland, France, and Italy volunteering in Honduras also created awareness of the campaign. Visiting Human Rights Delegations from the US and Canada made stops at the Supreme Court to deliver letters signed by organizations in both countries. Another delegation brought Chavelo’s case up at a meeting with the US Ambassador in Tegucigalpa.
The freechavelo.wordpress.com blog has, at the time of this writing, over 974 views in a little over a year’s time. The bulk of the views are from the US and Honduras, but people from places like Ireland, Portugal, Vietnam and Bulgaria were learning about Chavelo and responding to the actions. Facebook pages served as reminders to keep the phone calls and emails streaming to the Supreme Court. The Honduran Solidarity Network’s public listserve, presente-honduras, kept activists in the US and Canada, as well as in Honduras, updated and engaged in the campaign.
In a meeting in the chambers of Judge David Calix (no relation. I presume, to the other Judge Calix) gave the same information as in the meeting back in March complete with a visual aid. He pointed to a stack of manila envelopes and stated, “We are 2 years behind in our cases, Señor Morales’ was just filed this year so it will be awhile before we can even research it. Doña Ramona, Chavelo’s mother gave an emotional appeal for her son’s freedom. “He’s a good person he never did the things that he was accused of. He has children that need their father.” Judge Calix said that he would do what he could to quicken the pace, but couldn’t give any specific time. He did give out the phone number of his personal secretary and stated, “Please call if you have any questions.” The secretary’s number was added to the numbers to call on the campaign action pages.
With the lack of transparency in the Honduran justice system, the six-month deadline passed in what appeared to be just another case of justice being denied to just another peasant farmer. But then, in the last week of October, Chavelo’s lawyer, Omar Menjivar, while visiting the court for another case, received information regarding Chavelo. In a text he stated, “The judges have indicated to me that they will have their sentencing for Chavelo by the end of the first week of November”.
This was the beginning of a series of episodes of cognitive dissonance, two competing ideas fighting each other for prominence. The prospect that the judges were about to make a final decision in this case didn’t jibe with the belief that it was going to be a long time before they even look at the case. After getting clarification from Omar that it was indeed a final verdict that they were going to render, the worst was immediately feared. The only reason they came to a decision this quickly was because they were upholding the conviction. This set up the next episode of dissonance.
On November 5th, The Honduran station Radio Progreso announced on the air and on their Facebook page,
“THIS JUST IN: The appeal presented before the Supreme Court of Justice in the case of Isabel “Chabelo” Morales was declared partially in favor. In the coming days Chabelo can enjoy his freedom after 5 years in prison for a crime that was not investigated nor his guilt duly proven at trial.”
This must be a mistake! The judges had until the end of the week how could they render a decision earlier than they said they would, and how could it be this decision? Is it being translated wrong? Is it misinformation? Why isn’t Chavelo’s lawyer answering his phone? When he finally did and the confirmation was made the cognitive dissonance continued as the news was relayed. The first words of Doña Ramona when she heard the news were, “The judges are liars. I don’t believe anything they say.” Chavelo’s brother Byron, when reading the Radio Progreso post on Facebook stated, “This is just their hope, they aren’t saying that he is being released they are just expressing their hope that someday soon he might be free.” This is what happens when the state of justice is so horribly broken. The idea that justice could actually be rendered is too incongruent with everyday reality.
As of this writing, the wait for the paperwork to wind its way through the system until it reaches the prison warden is agonizing. But the prominence of the competing ideas ever so slightly begins to shift away from expecting any further injustice. It moves towards seeing Chavelo walk out of the prison and into his house. But, this being Honduras, his friends and family wait to see it with their our own eyes before they can fully openly celebrate.
1. For further information on the continuing fight to fully exonerate Chavelo, please visit freechavelo.wordpress.com.
Greg McCain is an International Human Rights Defender volunteering in Honduras. For more info on his efforts please visit the Human Rights Observation, Honduras website at hroh.wordpress.com.