The human rights defender and teacher Bernardo Caal Xol was released from prison on March 24, around 10 p.m., following four years and two months of "torture." Family, friends and social organizations had gathered to welcome him with outstretched arms as he walked out of the prison gates. His words following his release were strong and significant: "today I gained my freedom, it is a clear defeat of and triumph over criminalization, maybe they hoped that with this imprisonment they would be defeating the struggle for the defense of the territories, but no."
A communiqué was read at the press conference Bernardo and his lawyers gave upon his release in Guatemala City on March 31. They denounced "the situation faced by the Maya Q'eqchi' territory regarding the phenomenon of criminalization" which "is characterized by the fabrication of crimes against community leaders who are demanding the fulfillment of their individual and collective human rights", such as that whichoccurred in Bernardo's case. The communiqué also explains how the construction of hydroelectric dams in this territory has its origins in failed attempts to build these during the 1980s, coinciding with one of the bloodiest massacres committed by the army during the Internal Armed Conflict (IAC). It was not, however, until the end of the IAC and the signing of free trade agreements, that the ground was prepared for these megaprojects to become a reality in the 21st century. This was done by deceiving the population and without informing them of the plans to divert the river that supplied water to the communities of the region. Since then, the communities began to organize to demand their rights. Bernardo is one of their current representatives, which is why he has experienced threats, criminalization and unjust imprisonment.
As Amnesty International (AI) stated in a communiqué issued on the occasion of the human rights defender's release: "Bernardo Caal Xol should never have spent a day in prison.” After reviewing the criminal file opened against him they "found that there was no evidence of the crimes of which he is accused." AI also highlight how "the process against him was marked by similar patterns of criminalization used against other human rights defenders that the organization has documented in Guatemala." For this reason, AI declared Bernardo a prisoner of conscience. According to Erika Guevara Rosas, AI's Director for the Americas, "it is regrettable that in Guatemala unfounded criminal prosecutions aimed at harassing and hindering the work of human rights defenders, particularly environmentalists and Indigenous people, and those who fight against impunity and corruption, is such a common tactic (...). The people of Guatemala have suffered an unprecedented regression of the human rights situation in recent years. The authorities have tried to dismantle the justice system and the social fabric, criminalizing anyone who fights for a more just and dignified country."
According to the Bernardo's lawyers, the judge ordered Bernardo's release for good behavior. Bernardo explained at the press conference that his release is not an act of good will on the part of the State nor the Guatemalan justice system, but rather that he was released because he had served his sentence. Guatemalan law states that prisoners who serve half of their sentence (Bernardo had already served more than half) can benefit from parole, as long as they demonstrate good behavior, as in this case. It is, however, a conditional release.
It is important to note that regarding this process there is still an appeal to the Constitutional Court (CC) pending, which in which they allege violations of human rights throughout the entire criminal process. In addition, there is another case against Bernardo, known as the "teacher case", still pending which has been taken by the Ministry of Education. The next hearing in this second case is scheduled for April 11.
According to the latest report from the organization Global Witness, "Guatemala is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for defenders of land, territory and the environment (...). In 2020, 13 environmental activists were killed, once again the fourth highest rate of killings of land and environmental defenders per capita."