The sensitive issue of amnesty in Honduras

On Monday the National Congress of Honduras will start debating a political amnesty for the events of the recent political crisis which culminated with the deposing of president Manuel Zelaya on 2009-06-28. In the Guaymuras talks, which culminated in a pact signed by both Zelaya and his successor, interim president Roberto Micheletti, the question of amnesty was left out. Nobody asked for it. However, the president-elect, Porfirio Lobo Sosa, and the United States of America want it, and that is why it is back on the table.

It seems that amnesty is something the international community wants, but not the Hondurans. So where is the dividing line?

Nobody wants amnesty that leads to impunity for corruption. The amnesty that is discussed is for political crimes, such as Zelaya’s alleged attempt to illegally change the constitution, the militaries’ alleged crime in expatriating Zelaya, and acts committed during street protests by Zelaya supporters. I write alleged because everyone should be considered innocent until proven guilty in a court of law, although Zelaya is also a fugitive of justice (and the military assisted him in escaping). The amnesty being discussed is specifically for political crimes and related non-political misdemeanors, or something like that. That is, participating in an illegal street protest would be covered, and also certain acts of vandalism and similar committed during that protest.

Corruption, for which Zelaya is also accused, is not covered by the amnesty as proposed in the bill.

Congress also has to keep in mind that the accord signed by Zelaya and Micheletti as a result of the Guaymuras talks, called the Tegucigalpa/San José Accord, stipulates that a truth and reconciliation commission is created by the next president – which we know now will be Porfirio Lobo. If a blanket amnesty is given without any form of confession to the acts, then what are the chances that the person will talk to the truth and reconciliation commission?

Furthermore, the right to a free and fair trial cuts both ways. Just as the state has a right to prosecute a suspect, the suspect has a right to defend himself against accusations, to get a court of law to declare him innocent, and to clear his name and honor. In other words, it may not be that everyone concerned want an amnesty.

The case that comes to mind primarily is the military leadership. There are prima facie evidence that they broke the law, but their defense is that it was justifiable national self-defense – as when you shoot an intruder in your home in self-defense. A court of law can judge them and declare them innocent of any wrong-doing.

If Congress decides to deny them the possibility to clear their names in a court of law, then the legislative body owes them the courtesy to explain why it is not in the national interest that the case gets tried in a court, and to clear them of suspicion of wrong-doing by explicitly accepting the argument of national self-defense.

However, Congress can avoid this problem by doing as follows: Stipulate that each person who wishes to benefit from the amnesty has to report in writing what acts he or she wishes to accept amnesty for. It has the additional benefit of enabling the police to declare the case solved and thus decrease their case load. Furthermore, it has a cathartic effect by forcing people to own up to their acts, thus truly creating a new baseline for society. In fact, it could provide much of the benefit of the future truth and reconciliation commission.

This amnesty can of course prevent the prosecution of the military leadership, initiated this week. I had hoped that the defense arguments from the military would provide interesting insights into the role of Hugo Chávez in Honduras’ political crisis, in terms of armed infiltrators on the ground. However, everything is up in the air now so we can just wait and see what happens. Stay tuned, because this thriller will continue.

PS. The amnesty bill as proposed focuses in the preamble entirely on those who helped with the illegal referendum, the so-called “poll” about installing a so-called “quarta urna”, fourth ballot box. It can be worth reminding that although so much effort was put on writing a new constitution, nobody ever, to the best of my knowledge, stated a single concrete example of what it was that needed to change, or why.

3 thoughts on “The sensitive issue of amnesty in Honduras”

  1. As an American with Honduran Residency, I have no vote. But I have written letters to American congressmen, newspapers and anyone else who would listen telling them that the American position of re-instating Zelaya was wrong. I admire Micheletti and the Honduran people for their strength. I was an International Poll Watcher during the election and saw the looks on the Honduran faces as they voted for their candidate in what they knew was an open, honest and free election. They were proud of their country’s stand against the rest of the world and thereby saving their democracy.

    I can’t believe that the U.S. would continue to interfere in the internal politics of Honduras but then I didn’t believe they would insist that Honduras had a “Military Coup” and the return of the legally removed would be dictator either. I hope the new government will follow Micheletti’s lead and remain strong. There are many in the U.S. who will support you but no one can predict the actions of the Obama administration. Maybe after the 2010 elections in the U.S. their position will change. But November is a long way off and Honduras must do what’s best for Honduras.

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