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Honduras: Feminist Leader Detained in Tegucigalpa

Feminist Leader Detained in Tegucigalpa


By Julie Webb-Pullman, from Honduras

Merlin Aguigure Olvin, 42 year old founder and current co-ordinator of Movimiento de Mujeres Visitacion Padilla (Visitacion Padilla Women’s Movement) was detained by police last night, and remains imprisoned.

Around 11pm she was returning from an activity in observation of International Day Against Violence Against Women when the car she was in was stopped and searched by police. They discovered a can of spray paint which had used to paint a banner and props for a piece of street theatre on violence against women they had performed that day in the Plaza de Merced, in the city centre.

The police accused Merlin and her two male companions of damaging state property and being a part of an illicit organisation, and took them to the police post in barrio Manchin. The police then prepared a report which she refused to sign. She was able to exercise her right to call a lawyer, and contacted local human rights organisation COFADHI (Comite de Familiares de Detenidos y Desaparacidos de Honduras), one of whose lawyers arrived and accompanied her to Jefatura Metropolitano Numero 1, where she was charged with damaging state property, and jailed. The fate of her male companions is unknown.

COFADHI journalist Marvin Palacios facilitated me and Tanya Brannan, a lawyer and co-member of the Rights Action-organised International Delegation of Human Rights and Democracy, to gain entry to the detention centre at 11am this morning to ascertain the state of Merlin’s welfare, and obtain information about the circumstances of her detention.

Merlin told us she had not been beaten, unlike one of the three 15 year olds who were in the cell she now occupied. She said that in fact the police had only put her in this cell five minutes before our arrival – until then she had been held in the adjoining room with only a chair to sit on, and was unable to lie down at all during the night. The police had quickly tidied this room, and cleaned the cell, immediately before our arrival.

The room was dirty and full of junk, and there were no toilet facilities. Merlin said she was eventually taken upstairs to use the men’s toilets, which were so filthy they made her sick to the stomach, and there was no toilet paper, soap etc. The police did not provide her with any water or food, and still had not done so 12 hours later. The lawyer brought a bottle of water with her, and some friends got some yoghurt to her this morning, and that is the only food or drink she has had access to.

Outside the detention centre her lawyer, Karol Cardenas, told us that Merlin has been formally charged with damaging state property, and that despite the lawyer this morning presenting the judge with photographic evidence that the spray-paint had indeed been used for painting banners and props for their performance, and the appearance of three witnesses corroborating this, bail was denied.

She said that normally such a charge would be dropped, or the accused would at least be released on bail.

“But this is not a legal process, it is a political process, and for that reason we have no idea if and when she will be released,” Ms Cardenas said. “Under the current circumstances, leaders of social organisations are being targeted for arrest and detention. Merlin is being held not because she was in possession of a can of spraypaint, but because she is a leader of the feminist movement.”

Around 50 women, also members of the Movimiento de Mujeres Visitacion Padilla, are standing vigil outside the detention centre, insisting they will not leave until they see her safe and sound.

“Merlin has never done anything illegal in her life, she is a quiet woman, a mother of two children who has been in the women’s struggle for 26 years,” said Cristina Alvarado. “We have been demanding action on violence against women for almost 26 years, and we have denounced the police and the public prosecutor for all this time for their refusal to press charges against perpetrators of violence against women.” They are now taking their revenge.

Karol Cardenas said that the judicial system was bad enough before the coup, but now there is absolutely no recourse to legal guarantees, because they just don’t exist. “This is a male facility,” she told us, “There are no facilities for women. We are concerned about what may happen to her when the place fills up, as we expect will happen over the weekend.”

In light of previous experience, COFADHI Director Bertha Oliva this afternoon expressed concern that there is a very real possibility that Merlin Aguigure could be infected with HIV whilst incarcerated. “It is very important to have her liberated as soon as possible,” she said.

*************

Julie Webb-Pullman (click to view previous articles) is a New Zealand based freelance writer who has reported about - and on occasion from - Central America for Scoop since 2003. Send Feedback to julie@scoop.co.nz

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