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Friday, 25 October 2013

Honduran photographer killed three years after human-rights body requested his protection

Incident comes one month before country's presidential election 

By: Scott Griffen, Press Freedom Adviser for Latin America and the Caribbean

An employee of the Honduras Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) prepares voting materials to be distributed throughout the country for the upcoming presidential elections in Tegucigalpa October 21, 2013. The presidential elections will be held on November 24, 2013. REUTERS/Jorge Cabrera

LONDON, Oct 25, 2013 – A Honduran photographer who formerly worked for deposed president Manuel Zelaya was found dead last week in Tegucigalpa, three years after the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) requested that the Honduran state guarantee the photographer's "life and personal integrity".

According to the Honduras press-freedom group C-Libre as well as media reports, the body of Manuel de Jesús Murillo Varela, 32, was first identified on Oct. 16 after having apparently been shot to death one week earlier. The incident occurred one month before Hondurans are scheduled to vote in a presidential election in which Zelaya's wife is one of the leading candidates.

On Feb. 25, 2010, the IACHR, the human-rights arm of the Organization of American States (OAS), formally asked the Honduran government to adopt "precautionary measures" to protect the life of Murillo Varela, fellow cameraman Ricardo Antonio Rodríguez, and their families. Under IACHR's rules of procedure, such requests are made in light of "serious and urgent situations presenting a risk of irreparable harm to persons". At the time of the IACHR's decision, Murillo Varela was working as a photographer for Globo TV.

In this case, the request alleged that Murillo Varela and Rodríguez "had been subject to kidnapping, acts of torture, and death threats," referencing in particular an incident on Feb. 2, 2010 when the two men were abducted by masked gunmen. The abduction apparently was connected with their opposition to the 2009 forced removal of then-president Zelaya, widely viewed domestically and internationally as a coup d'état.

According to an account of the incident Murillo Varela later gave to TIEMPO newspaper, the captors placed a sharp machete down his throat and later placed him in a plastic body bag in which they threatened to bury him alive. They also continuously threatened his family's safety throughout the ordeal.

C-Libre reported that Murillo Varela had been employed as an official photographer to Zelaya and subsequently documented protests against the president's removal. Reports suggest he was now involved with the Libertad y Refundación party (Freedom and Refoundation, LIBRE), whose leader, Xiomara Castro de Zelaya, wife of the deposed president, is a candidate in the country's upcoming presidential election set for Nov. 24.

"The Honduran government must immediately investigate the murder of Manuel Murillo Varela and punish those responsible," IPI Press Freedom Manager Barbara Trionfi said. "Given that the Honduran state bore explicit responsibility for the life of Murillo Varela following the adoption of precautionary measures in 2010, it must also explain why it failed to meet this responsibility."

Trionfi observed that in its 2010 annual report, the IACHR Special Rapporteurship on Freedom of Expression had already reported "enormous difficulties" in the implementation of the precautionary measures, citing "journalists' mistrust of the police and the lack of an effectve response by the authorities."

She added: "Given that general elections will take place next month, protecting the lives and rights of journalists in Honduras is more critical than ever. The Honduran government must step up to protect the right of the Honduran people to be informed in the run up to the elections."  

IPI also sought to remind President Porfírio Lobo Sosa of his promise last year to implement measures designed to improve journalist security in Honduras, which included a protection program for journalists in danger. The plan, announced in August 2012, also included the creation of an investigative body designed to prevent impunity for crimes against journalists and the creation of special legal procedures for crimes against journalists, coordinated projects with the Secretariat for Human Rights and called for the removal of criminal penalties for defamation and libel. As reports indicate these measures have not been adopted, IPI today continued to recommend that these elements be approved and put into effective practice as soon as possible.

According to IPI's Death Watch, Murillo Varela is the second Honduran journalist killed this year – and the 26th since Zelaya's removal in 2009. By comparison, five Honduran journalists were killed between 1997 and 2009.

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