By Frank Jack Daniel
TEGUCIGALPA (Reuters) – Suspicious deaths. Beatings. Random police shootings. Life under the de facto government of Honduras at times feels uncannily like Latin America’s dark past of military rule.
In the three months since soldiers overthrew leftist President Manuel Zelaya and marched him out of the country in his pajamas, international and Honduran human rights groups say security forces have committed a litany of abuses.
They link at least 10 deaths to de facto rule under Roberto Micheletti, who was named president after the June 28 coup. The government admits three people have died in protests.
Amnesty International said in September that Honduras risks spiraling into a state of lawlessness where police and military act with no regard for rights.
Repression of protests against the coup increased after Zelaya slipped back into the country on Sept 21, took refuge in the Brazilian embassy and called his backers onto the streets.
Honduran human rights group Cofadeh said it had numerous reports of police firing guns in poor areas of Tegucigalpa.
Some shootings occurred during night-time curfews enforced by Micheletti.
Unemployed Angel Manuel Osorto broke the curfew to go out to borrow money for medical treatment for his pregnant wife and his 13-year-old son Angel David was hit in the lower back when a policeman fired a pistol from a motorbike.
“As we walked home a police patrol rode up shooting. One bullet hit him,” said Osorto. “Thank God he is alive.”
That same night a Zelaya supporter was shot dead. Five more were hospitalized with bullet wounds. “People are terrified to go out at night. I am scared of the authorities,” said Osorto.
The curfew has been lifted in Honduras, but Micheletti has put in place an emergency decree allowing the army and police to break up protests. And they do so with gusto, firing gas at almost any small demonstration.
Tegucigalpa police chief Leandro Osorio denied abuses and said left-leaning rights groups are biased in favor of Zelaya.
“They will say there are lots of injured people in the hospital, but that’s not true,” he told Reuters.
RIGHTS GROUP TEAR GASED
Honduras did not suffer the same level of state-sponsored violence as South American nations under military regimes or neighbors Guatemala and El Salvador during Central America’s civil wars in the 1980s. But veteran rights activist Bertha Oliva says in some ways things are worse now.
“Before, they hid the dead. Now they do it in public, challenging every principle of human rights,” said Oliva, who formed human rights group Cofadeh when her husband, a left-wing activist, was abducted in 1982.
Two days after Zelaya’s return, police fired tear gas into Cofadeh’s office where about 150 people were gathered to report beatings by soldiers and police dispersing protesters from the streets of Tegucigalpa.
The Washington-based Inter-American Commission on Human Rights condemned the attack. It said there had also been some cases of violence against people and property by protesters.
“The human rights situation in Honduras has worsened substantially in the sense that the controls and repression of protests have risen exponentially,” the commission’s president Luz Patricia Mejia told Reuters.
One 22-year-old medical student who declined to be named says she and other members of her leftist, pro-Zelaya group have received threats by text message. One recent message read: “The best communist is a dead communist.”
Last week, the student says masked, armed men tried to force her into a black car with dark windows. She escaped, but broke a ligament in her arm struggling to free herself from one of the men’s grip.
“The idea was to torture me for information about my organization, I am sure of that,” she said, her arm in a cast and dark rings around her eyes from the stress.
(Writing by Frank Jack Daniel, editing by Anthony Boadle)