Bernardo Caal Xol, a Mayan Q’eqchi’ community leader and environmental activist from Guatemala, is waiting for a verdict in a controversial trial, where he is accused of fraud, illegal detention and theft, after being in pre-trial detention for 10 months. Caal Xol and his supporters claim his only ‘crime’ has been defending the Cahabon and Oxec rivers from hydroelectric projects.
“It was on December 8, 2017, when the Public Ministry (PM) and the companies that keep the Cahabon river hostage, convinced the judge of Coban, and lawyer Isaias Caal, to order my arrest,” said Caal Xol in a handwritten letter signed October 8. “The defamation, slander, discredit and persecution against me has no merit.”
Prosecutors presented their evidence and witnesses against Caal Xol on October 9 in Coban, about 200 kilometers north of Guatemala City, while scores of supporters and partners-in-struggle from Cahabon protested outside the tribunal after discussing the issue in community assemblies. The judge asked the police and military to safeguard the place, but it wasn’t necessary. At the end, he programmed the last hearing for October 24.
“In January 2018 I handed myself to justice and I’ve been in Coban’s jail since then. I’ve been captive for 6,000 hours,” he wrote in his letter. “The Public Ministry and the kidnapping companies are accusing me of aggravated theft and illegal detentions.”
Prosecutors accused Caal Xol of detaining a group of workers from the cable T.V. company Netzone on October 15, 2015, for three hours while ordering demonstrators to attack and rob them. He was arrested when he voluntarily stepped into a tribunal to testify on a previous ‘fraud’ accusation he also denies.
“I will face justice. A new arrest order appeared. I had been accused of scamming the state already, but they couldn’t prove it, their arguments fell. Now there are other crimes. The objective is to silence and intimidate the people,” said Caal Xol, shortly before being arrested.
Bernardo Caal Xol, maya q'eqchi'; desde la prisión envía un manuscrito donde le pregunta a Thelma Aldana, ex titular del Ministerio Público; porqué permitió "la criminalización de Defensores de Derechos Humanos" durante su administración. pic.twitter.com/Np2uq0mw71— Santiago Botón ���� (@SantiagoteleSUR) 7 de octubre de 2018
“Bernardo Caal Xol, Q’eqchi’ Mayan, sends a letter from prison asking Thelma Aldana, ex-Attorney General, why she allowed ‘the criminalization of human rights defenders’ during her administration.”
Legally, he says, his activities as leader at the teachers’ union exempted him from his teaching work, but he was expelled from it on 2015 after political disputes. A court ruled in his favor, but he couldn’t return to his union position because he was not a teacher anymore. Soon after, the accusation of ‘fraud’ was placed against him.
The communities of Alta Verapaz have been organizing themselves for years against several hydroelectric projects on the Oxec and Cahabon rivers and rue the fact that many of them have been left without water access. They claim the projects are illegal because the local peoples were not consulted about it, as established by the Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization.
It was Caal Xol who filed three lawsuits against the Oxec construction company at different institutions, including accusations for failing to consult the local population, and illegally cutting down 15 hectares of trees. His leadership in the movement since 2015 has made him a visible target, and he has announced several times that his life “is in danger.”
Caal Xol has been accused by members of the Cahabon communities, of causing division within them, as not all of them oppose the hydroelectric projects, and there are those that think the environmental impact is not as serious as the environmentalists claim.
Activists and social organizations say the government acts alongside national and transnational companies to criminalize their protests and dismantle resistance against profitable projects, such as hydroelectrics and mines.
Oxec employees only recognized Caal Xol´s issue two years after the incident occurred. Caal Xol believes the company and the government are working together against him and the movement.
The company’s representatives insist they have nothing to do with it.