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Elections in Honduras Ought Not Be Blessed by U.S. Policymakers

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During my last visit to Honduras with a delegation that included Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky, we met a man named Jose David Murillo. Jose's son, 19-year old Isis Obed, was shot and killed on July 5, as he and thousands of others clamored for the return of President Manual Zelaya who'd been deposed in a military coup a week earlier and was trying to land at Tegucigalpa's airport in a chartered airplane.

Jose learned of his son's fate when he called him on his cell phone that day; someone from the morgue answered and told him the phone's owner was dead. For me, he had a message: We've pinned our hopes in God and international justice, he said, because our internal justice system is not working.

Jose's words still echo in Honduras, even as the country prepares to vote for a new president, a new Congress and mayors on Sunday. Since the military rustled Zelaya from bed at gunpoint on June 28, and hustled him into an airplane that took him to Costa Rica, human rights groups say that more than twenty people actively opposed to the coup have been killed and hundreds have been injured.

Thousands of individuals opposed to the coup have been subjected to arbitrary arrest and many charged with political crimes such as "sedition." In Honduras, our delegation met numerous people who'd been beaten by police and the military, and one 13-year old boy who'd been shot in the stomach by security forces. A mother came to us in tears, wondering when her son would be able to return from exile after his role in the resistance had put him in danger and forced him to flee.

The de facto government of Roberto Micheletti, the former head of the Honduran Congress who the military installed as president, has issued various decrees restricting freedom of assembly and authorizing the military and police to shut down opposition media outlets and, in one instance, to confiscate their equipment. The opposition media is back on the air, but regular interruptions of television and radio transmissions continue. Meanwhile the threat of another shutdown looms due to a recent decree that prohibits any statement by the press that threatens "national security."

Investigations into the abuses have run into obstacles as well. Following Murillo's shooting, the de facto government's human rights representative said the military had not used any live ammunition to quell the pro-Zelaya forces, but investigators from the attorney general's office found 167 shells where the army was stationed that day. Many other investigations into abuses have stalled or been thwarted by security forces and government personnel.

Human rights groups have also faced down threats and direct assaults. During one peaceful demonstration days after the coup, security forces tossed tear gas into the offices of COFADEH, the human rights group that served as our hosts during our stay.

President Zelaya returned to the country in September, sneaking past security forces and into the Brazilian embassy in Tegucigalpa. However, his efforts to foster an accord, which have included the help of the Costa Rican government, the Organization of American States and the U.S. State Department, have met with derision and, some would say, ridicule.

The most recent accord, brokered by U.S. diplomats, called for Zelaya's return to power, but the vote on his reinstitution never occurred in the obstinate pro-Micheletti legislature. They played for time until the clock before the election ran out.

It's within this atmosphere of murder, fear, reprisals and recrimination that the de facto government is readying for elections on Sunday. Yet I wonder how fair these elections can be when the democratically elected president sits in a virtual prison, or how free they can be when thousands wonder whether their opposition will lead to new mass arrests, charges of "sedition," or outright repression.

Worse still, I am concerned about what type of precedent the United States government would set if it recognizes the winner of an election designed, in part, to erase a bloody and unjust military coup.

If our government blesses this election, and the majority of governments in our hemisphere do not, we will be divided from our allies and our credibility as advocates for democracy will be compromised once again.

Instead, we should be standing for a restoration of the democratic order, implementation of the San Jose Accord, ending the violations of human rights, and full respect for civil liberties and an independent media. We should also stand in full support of a national dialogue in Honduras so that all citizens can debate their nation's democratic institutions and discuss steps that are needed to reform and improve them without interference from the Honduran government.

Circumstances in Honduras present before the coup-a debate over how marginalized sectors in society could gain political, social, and economic inclusion - are also present in nations across the hemisphere. It is urgent that U.S. policy makers avoid creating the impression that democratic gains obtained at the ballot box can be taken away at the whim of the military or powerful economic interests with the apparent acquiescence of the United States of America.

In the days after the military coup, Isis Obed told his father that the time to rise up was now. I agree. It's our time push for the right solution in Honduras, one that reinforces democracy, human rights and sends a message to the region that the U.S. is working with it to resolve these issues.

Sarah Stephens, executive director of the Center for Democracy in the Americas (CDA), visited Honduras during the national election campaign with a Carter Center Delegation in October and with Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky earlier this month.