Bernardo Caal Xol is a Q’eqchi’ teacher from Alta Verapaz who was sentenced to seven years and four months in November 2018 by a court in Coban for theft and illegal detention. The courts in Coban, capital of Alta Verapaz, have regularly demonstrated a lack of transparency, independence and impartiality. Just last week in a pre-trial hearing related to a second set of spurious charges against Bernardo the presiding judge removed the press from the courtroom and conducted a closed-door hearing at the request of the Public Prosecutor’s Office. At that hearing, Bernardo denounced the “Cartel of the Togas” in reference to what he calls a “criminal gang” of judges, public prosecutors, litigators, and the bureaucracy of the justice system, that work in different parts of the country to advance malicious prosecution of land defenders and ancestral authorities.
Bernardo Caal, as a member of an affected Q’eqchi’ community, presented a successful legal challenge, in collaboration with the environmental NGO Madre Selva in December 2015. The complaint accuses the state of illegally granting licenses for the Oxec hydroelectric dam without prior consultation with the communities affected. Just a few weeks later, the Supreme Court sided with Caal and after a series of appeals, in May 2017 the Constitutional Court, reaffirmed the Supreme Court’s decision. The hydroelectric permits were suspended pending consultation with the indigenous community. In August 2017, Q’eqchi’ communities in the municipality of Santa Maria Cahabon, where the dams are located, organized a community referendum where more than 26,000 people voted against the implementation of the project; 12 voted in favor, clearly showing the opposition to the implementation of the projects. A few months later, Bernardo was arrested.
In a clear act of retribution for the defense of his community’s water rights, in 2016 prosecutors in the city of Coban filed entirely spurious criminal charges against Bernardo. They claimed he had committed fraud by collecting his teachers salary while not teaching in the classroom. At that time he had been elected to serve in the Central Committee of the teachers union for the department of Alta Verapaz. Under the terms of the teachers’ collective bargaining agreement, Central Committee members are allowed paid workdays to conduct union businesses. No complaints were made against any of the other Central Committee members who were temporarily out of the classroom, demonstrating that Bernardo was targeted because of his success as a human rights and environmental defender.
In December 2017, Bernardo attended a pre-trial hearing related to those charges, but was arrested while leaving the courthouse on separate charges of illegal detention and robbery. These charges were related to a meeting held on October 15, 2015 when communities impacted by the Oxec hydroelectric dam gathered in an empty lot beside a road. Thousands of Q’eqchi attended the meeting; the crowd spilled across the road. Prosecutors allege that a truck with workers from the cable television company Netzone, which has contracts with the Oxec dam, were unable to pass through the crowd for three hours, and that during this time items in the pick-up’s open bed were stolen. Prosecutors claim that Bernardo Caal spoke at the meeting and that as a leader of the Q’eqchi’ communities, he is responsible for detaining the workers in their car for three hours and for the robbery of items from the truck bed.
Bernardo’s lawyers explain that witnesses provided contradictory evidence. For example, a witness first claimed he had seen Bernardo direct the crowd, then later stated he had first learned of Bernardo’s participation in the meeting weeks later when he recognized him from a photograph in a newspaper article. Or, in another example, after stating all of their belongings were taken from the bed of the pick up truck, a cable employee later stated that after arriving in Guatemala City they realized some things were missing from the truck bed. The alleged victims claim they were detained at 8:30am, but photographic evidence places their truck and hour away at that time, and evidence established that Bernardo Caal was not at the meeting at that time. No witnesses claimed that Bernardo had stolen items or blocked the truck.
Nonetheless, in November 2018 Bernardo Caal was sentenced to more than 7 years in prison by Coban Judge Walter Fabricio Rosales Hernandez. Though Caal’s lawyers are appealing the sentence, the Coban courts are particularly slow, so it is expected that the case will not reach courts in Guatemala City for another year and a half.
Despite the outcry against the Oxec and Renace projects, the companies are moving forward. In August, 2018, Indigenous Maya 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 she reporting on illegal logging near the Cahabon river.