The Mayan Q’eqchi’ community leader and environmental activist from Guatemala Bernardo Caal Xol was sentenced to seven years in prison accused of illegal detention and theft after being in pre-trial detention for 11 months, but his supporters claim his only ‘crime’ was defending the Cahabon and Oxec rivers from hydroelectric projects.
Caal Xol’s defense argues the activist is suffering from political persecution. The communities of Alta Verapaz have been organizing themselves for years against several hydroelectric projects on the Oxec and Cahabon rivers due the fact that many of them have been left without water access. Because of his leadership, speaking skills, and good knowledge of the Spanish language, Caal Xol was chosen by community assemblies to represent them.
“This sentence shows the corruption pointed out by the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG),” said the activist after hearing the verdict. “The Public Ministry has bowed to the interests of the companies that are appropriating of the water in Alta Verapaz. If you pay attention, I didn’t commit any of the crimes I’m being accused of, but today I’m the sentenced one.”
The communities claim the Oxec and Renace hydroelectric projects are illegal because the local Indigenous Q’eqchi’ peoples were not properly consulted and informed about it, as established by Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization.
Caal Xol warned fellow activists and community members about further criminalization from the government and private companies.
“I call for the national and international community to monitor everything that the Q’eqchi’ people is suffering,” he said. “It means that the companies will come and leave us without territory and without rivers, taking it all away.”
Prosecutors accused Caal Xol of detaining a group of workers from the cable T.V. company Netzone on Oct. 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.
“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 Oct. 8. “The defamation, slander, discredit and persecution against me has no merit.”
In August, the Indigenous Mayan K'iche journalist Rolanda de Jesus Garcia Hernandez was attacked and robbed of her equipment by people allegedly related to the Oxec hydroelectric project while reporting on illegal logging by the Cahabon river.