[Originally published in the Annual Report 2022]

On March 24, we received an unexpected call informing us that Bernardo Caal Xol, a human rights defender imprisoned for more than four years, would be released that night. That same afternoon we accompanied Juanita Pérez, one of the Human Rights Law Firm (BDH) lawyers who represents Bernardo, to the capital's penitentiary center to take the necessary steps prior to his release.

"Because of the time this visit had to take place (late afternoon), the area looked particularly insecure. I would have felt very exposed if PBI had not been there to accompany me" (Juanita Pérez, BDH lawyer).

Around 10 p.m. that night, family members, friends and social organizations welcomed Bernardo with open arms as he was released from prison. His words following his release were significant and determined: "today I am obtaining my freedom; it is a clear defeat and a triumph over criminalization; perhaps they hoped that with this imprisonment they would be defeating the struggle for the defense of the territories, but no".

A few days later, we accompanied Bernardo on the trip back to his homeland. The tour began in Cobán and passed through Carchá, Lanquín and Cahabón. In Cahabón, his place of origin, he passed through several communities where he was received by hundreds of members of the Peaceful Resistance, Cahabón.

The criminalization process and international support for Bernardo

Bernardo Caal Xol, is Maya Q'eqchi' and from the municipality of Cahabón, department of Alta Verapaz. He is one of the spokespersons of the Peaceful Resistance, Cahabón. The Resisitance was formed in 2015, when 38 communities from the municipality organized to defend their territory against the implementation of hydroelectric projects along the Cahabón river basin. These projects are operated by the company Oxec S.A, belonging to the group Energy Resources Capital Corp (ERCC) and are having serious impacts on the lives of the population: destruction of forests, ecosystems and sacred sites of the Q'eqchi' people; diversion of rivers; impediment of access to the river by the population; decrease of water for the use of the communities (houses, planting and crops, etc.).

"The State protects the companies that enter the communities to plunder and loot, to take their resources and commercialize them. Our ancestors have taken care of these resources for many years and have passed them to us along with their teachings. I am referring to everything that surrounds us, the hills, the mountains, the forests, the rivers, the animals, all the living beings around us". (Bernardo Caal Xol)

Bernardo became the most visible spokesperson of the Resistance when, in December 2015, he filed an injunction before the CSJ demanding that work on these projects be suspended. The license was granted without carrying out the prior consultation established in Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization (ILO), and the injunction demanded that this be carried out. In May 2017, the CC granted an injunction in favor of the Q'eqchi' communities, recognizing the violation of their right to free, prior, and informed consent and ordered the Ministry of Energy and Mines (MEM) to carry out a consultation process. The activities of the hydroelectric plants were not, however, suspended. The Resistance communities conducted their own good faith consultation on August 27, 2017. 26,537 people participated, of which 26,526 rejected the presence of the company (19,714 elders and 8,700 children) with 11 people voting in favor. This consultation was not recognized. The consultation carried out by the MEM at the end of the year, in which only some leaders of 11 communities participated, was recognized.

In the first half of 2017, while the communities awaited the final resolution of the CC, the process of defamation and criminalization against Bernardo began. A hate campaign was generated against him using social networks and press editorials, which also deeply affected his family, especially his teenage daughters. Days before the CC issued its final ruling regarding the Oxec project, the first arrest warrant was issued against Bernardo, limiting his participation in public activities, as well as his ability to speak on behalf of the Q'eqchi' people.

He was arrested in January 2018 and held in preventive detention. On November 9 of the same year, a court in Cobán sentenced him to seven years and four months in prison for the crimes of illegal detentions and aggravated robbery, in a trial full of inconsistencies in evidence and procedural flaws. A few days later, a group of United Nations experts declared the legal proceedings against Bernardo a clear case of criminalization: "The conviction of the Q'eqchí' leader is an apparent attempt to silence and discredit the legitimate exercise of the rights of the indigenous community." In July 2020, Amnesty International (AI) declared Bernardo a prisoner of conscience and concluded that the charges against him "show the same patterns of criminalization against human rights defenders that we have been documenting in the country for years."

Bernardo's release four years and two months after entering prison was not an act of good will by the State, the Guatemalan judicial system, nor was it the result of international pressure. He was released because he served his sentence, since there is a law that establishes that prisoners who serve half of their sentence (and he had already served more than half of it) can benefit from the remission of sentences, as long as they demonstrate good behavior, as was the case with Bernardo.

"Everyone made an effort to secure my freedom, but you realize that those who have control of corruption in Guatemala are not afraid of world opinion, they feel very powerful. In my case there were many organizations, many people demanding my freedom, but the expected results were not obtained..., however, thanks to these calls for action my criminalization and the kidnapping of the rivers, became known in other parts of the world." (Bernardo Caal Xol)

Accompaniment of the Peaceful Resistance of Cahabón and Bernardo

We accompanied Bernardo to the hearings that took place during his criminalization process and visited him in prison every month during his unjust detention. Our visits have been an important source of protection inside the prison, because, according to him, the fact that "there were organizations looking out for me and other criminalized comrades, contributed to the fact that nothing happened to us." Likewise, the prison authorities had "a certain respect for the imprisoned defenders when they saw people from international organizations visiting us; that ensured that people understood that my detention was not a result of crime but for defending collective rights." In addition, "one does not feel forgotten, like most of the people there, who are indeed abandoned."

During these visits, in addition to giving him moral support and news from outside, we facilitated his participation in the documentary The Blood of the Earth - directed by Félix Zurita de Higes and produced by PBI and Entrepueblos with funding from the Agència Catalana de Cooperació al Desenvolupament (Catalonia) - who made two recordings to disseminate his voice outside of prison and reported in several of our publications about his situation.

"The recordings made inside the prison were very valuable for me, it was an escape that allowed me to express myself from prison; I very much regret that the authorities have limited this possibility, because it was a way to keep the people who were waiting in the wings informed, otherwise how do you communicate with those who are on the outside?" (Bernardo Caal Xol)

We also provided direct and permanent reports about Bernardo’s situation to: the diplomatic corps in Guatemala, inviting them to observe the hearings; state political actors; the United Nations (UN); human rights organizations; civil society outside Guatemala.

"I thank PBI for the constant presence and support it has given me during these years of incarceration. The accompaniment has been important and I will continue to ask for it" (Bernardo Caal Xol).

Since the good faith consultation on the Oxec hydroelectric project was held, we have also been accompanying the communities of the Peaceful Resistance, Cahabón in addition to Bernardo, visiting them regularly. In 2018 we organized a series of 13 community safety and security workshops in the Q'eqchi' language for 169 people (105 women and 64 men). During the pandemic we were unable to visit the territory but resumed our visits in 2022, starting in May with a tour of 10 communities to screen the documentaries ‘The Blood of the Earth’ and ‘Water, the Blood of the Earth’ (the latter made by the Madre Selva Collective). Prior to each of the screenings, we screened a short welcome video made by Bernardo.

Criminalization against Bernardo continues: the "teacher case."

We are currently accompanying Bernardo in a second criminalization process against him known as the "teacher case", in which he is accused of having received 20 months of his teacher's salary without working. Of the 20 teachers singled out in this case by the Ministry of Education, only Bernardo was issued an arrest warrant for the crime of fraud which, during the initial phase, was changed to improper withholding of funds. Bernardo appeared before the Second Criminal Court of First Instance of Cobán in July 2017, where his defense explained that he had not shown up to teach classes because he was working for the education union and had permission to do so.

Bernardo did not start receiving notifications about this case until he was released from prison. The trial will take place five years after the beginning of the process. According to the lawyers, both these situations constitute violations of the legally established deadlines for prosecution. In September 2022 this accusation reached the trial phase (currently in progress) despite the fact that his lawyers maintain that the severity of the judicial process does not correspond to the accusations.