Guillermo Lopez Lone and Tirza Flores Lanza visited our country in November 2010. Tirza and Guillermo, appeal court judge and judge in the district court of San Pedro Sula, Honduras called for attention from Judges for Judges, a.o., for their then recent disciplinary dismissal. Together with two colleagues they both had taken part in a demonstration against the coup in 2009, which deposed of president Zelaya. The coup had been whitewashed by many at the time: Zelaya was supposed to have pushed an unconstitutional referendum, enabling him to extend his term of office. The Corte Suprema of Honduras supported those committing the coup. In the end the international community called the coup illegal.
Guillermo was not only a judge, but also the chairman of the Honduras’ Association of Judges Asociación de Jueces por la Democratia (AJD), which position he could no longer hold as a result of his dismissal.
Last 2nd and 3rd February the case ‘Lopez Lone and others vs Honduras’ finally came before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in de Costa Rican capital of San José. This court is a part of the Organisation of American States OAS and is charged with the duty of applying and interpreting the American Human Rights Treaty. Although there are large differences, this court is the Latin-American counterpart of ‘our’ human rights court in Strasbourg. The most important difference is that a civilian cannot bring his case before the court in San José directly. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in Washington (DC) works as a filter. This commission is so ‘effective’, that only a handful of cases reaches the court every year.
The Commission presented the case to the court orally at the hearing. The court heard four experts on international human rights, called by the plaintiffs. These experts dwelled at length on the difference between declared enforceable rules of conduct on one hand, and the more open, ethical rules on the other. Also they referred to the question whether members of the bench are fully entitled to universally recognised human rights and liberties, or whether our profession forces us to put up with limitations of our rights. The plaintiffs referred to the experts’ arguments and claimed that the disciplinary proceedings, culminating in their dismissal, had violated the principles of fair trial, the principle of legality and their freedom of speech and assembly.
The government of Honduras rebutted that it does not suit a judge to take a political stand so explicitly. The disciplinary rules forbid to take part in political demonstrations and other behaviour that can harm the esteem of the office, and the plaintiffs just had to abide by the rules.\
The plaintiffs replied that it had been the Corta Suprema itself that had through the justice intranet called upon all to take part in a manifestation to support the coup. This was a rather explicit remark. In Honduras it is virtually impossible to keep one’s distance of political debate, just as it is in other Latin-American countries. The judges associations are politically coloured as well. The largest association in the country, the Asociación de Jueces y Magistrados de Honduras, is being reproached to rub to the government too closely, e.g. to do too little to protect its members during the recent ‘cleaning up’ of the judiciary in the ‘depuration’. This meant the dismissal or forced transfer of a great number of judges on account of actual or suspected –but unfounded- accusations of corruption. The ADJ wants to be independent, but by criticizing the government’s justice policy and in view of the government’s attacks on the independence of the judiciary, ADJ places itself in the opposition’s camp.
Aftre the oral hearing, parties have been granted an adjournment until the end of March 2015 to present their written observations to the Corta Suprema and to answer the questions raised by the Corta during the hearing. The Corta will consider the case. De judgment is expected coming June.
It was not in any way distrust in the Inter-American Court that let Judges for Judges decide to have a judge travel to Costa Rica. All together some thirty observers had been invited by the ADJ, among which, apart from Latin-American judges, colleagues from Germany, Spain, Norway and Denmark. Of course, our presence there provided important support for our four affected Honduras’ colleagues, but the subject touches all of us. In The Netherlands as well, legislation is in process allowing for an extension of the scope of disciplinary measures against judges. It is most omportant that we should realize that this may be a relatively harmless instrument in the hands of a decent administration, but it may be used against us in times of political changes for the worse.
By Katrien Witteman
Penal judge in the District Court of Noord-Holland.