A Collaboration with the Equipo de Reflexión, Investigación y Comunicación (ERIC) (Team for Reflection, Research and Communication – ERIC) of El Progreso, Honduras.
In October 2015 José Isabel Morales (Chabelo) was finally acquitted of multiple counts of murder and attempted murder arising out of a violent agrarian conflict between a peasant group that Chabelo led and a powerful ex-military official in the region known as Bajo Aguán in Honduras. The criminal process lasted seven years, of which Chabelo spent 6 years, 9 months and 7 days in jail. The trumped-up charges lacked foundation, and the unconscionable delay in justice was due to structural flaws in the judicial system, multiple violations of his due process rights, arbitrariness and incompetence of the judicial authorities (with indicia of undue influence), and ethical violations by the State's Attorney General (Ministerio Público), which went unpunished. Chabelo's attorneys with the human rights division of the Equipo de Reflexión, Investigación y Comunicación (ERIC) in Honduras asked the clinic to assist it with legal research and drafting of a petition to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). The petition was filed in November of 2016 and is currently pending before the IACHR.
The case José Isabel Morales (Chabelo) is emblematic of the serious violations of due process and structural flaws in the Honduran judicial system. At another level, it is also emblematic of the state's responsibility for agrarian conflicts between peasants and large landowners in the country, by not giving effect to the formal adjudications made in favor of the peasants, and by failing to respond to their complaints. It is also a product of the state of lawlessness and violence in which the Honduran state itself is, on the one hand absent, and on the other complicit with the rupture in the rule of law. Finally, it is emblematic of the criminalization of social protest against this reality, in which the state uses the situation of violence as a pretext to criminalize and violate the human rights of actors involved in social movements of change.
Chabelo was a leader in a peasant cooperative that had squatted on land formerly used by the U.S. military in the 1980s as the Centro Regional de Entrenamiento Militar (CREM), a base to train regional militaries in counter-insurgency. Alleging that the base had reverted to untitled national land, the group achieved a favorable ruling from the Instituto Nacional Agrario (INA) adjudicating the land in their favor as land subject to affectation under the existing agrarian reform law. However, much of the land in question was usurped by a former high-ranking police official for his personal ranch. The ensuing conflict led to multiple acts of violence, and Chabelo was made the scapegoat of various homicides based on a photo that appeared in the news of him carrying out the body of a fallen comrade. Prosecutors trumped up charges and presented conflicting and doctored testimony of witnesses. In addition, Chabelo was held well beyond the constitutional limit for pre-trial detention, amounting to what the Inter-American Commission classifies as "anticipated punishment" in violation of human rights norms. Students analyzed the court records and documentation of the case, and researched Inter-American jurisprudence on the right to liberty, the right to due process and a fair trial, and the right to judicial protections.
The students also made the argument that Chabelo was subject to cruel and inhumane treatment, as he was forced to labor while in prison and suffered an injury which caused a permanent disability. While in prison, Chabelo lost his father and his first-born child as well, and was unable to attend their funerals. The students worked closely with some of the leading human rights lawyers in Honduras to draft the petition to the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights (IACHR). Chabelo's case was well publicized in Honduras, therefore he decided with his legal team to make public the filing of his petition against the Honduran state. The petition was filed in November of 2016 and is currently pending.