Former PBI-Guatemala field volunteer testifies at trial on the arbitrary detention by police of journalist Norma Sancir at Indigenous protest

Published by Brent Patterson on

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Photo: Katharina Ochsendorf testified via videoconference from the Guatemalan consulate in Germany. Photo by Prensa Comunitaria/ Simón Antonio.

Norma Sancir is a Maya Kaqchikel journalist, social communicator and human rights defender of the Ch’orti ’people in Chiquimula, Guatemala. She was arrested on September 18, 2014, by the National Civil Police (PNC) at a Maya Ch’orti’ protest opposed to mining activities and laws that criminalize opponents of mines and related infrastructure.

(In 1997, Guatemala passed the Mining Law, which was drafted with the assistance of executives working for a Canadian mining company. The Canadian Embassy also met with Otto Pérez Molina, Guatemala’s president from January 2012 to September 2015, to create a favourable environment for Canadian companies, despite Pérez Molina’s alleged involvement in “scorched earth campaigns” against Indigenous peoples. In 2014, Canadian mining assets abroad totalled $72.4 billion. Half of those assets were in Latin America and the Caribbean. In 2021, Canadian mining assets in Guatemala totalled $398 million.)

Sancir was arbitrarily detained for five days at the Los Jocotes prison in Zacapa.

Prensa Comunitaria reports: “On Wednesday, August 9, the fifth hearing of the oral and public trial for the illegal detention of journalist Norma Sancir was held. Katharina Ochsendorf, who at the time of the journalist’s arrest, on 18 September 2014, was a volunteer with Peace Brigades International (PBI), testified as a witness.”

The article continues:

The witness said that she was in the region at the request of the Nuevo Día [New Day] Ch’orti’ Indigenous Association, because on September 17 and 18 there would be nationwide demonstrations.

The Mayan Ch’orti’ people made the call at the Jupilingo bridge. So, when she showed up on September 17, she looked for the head of police contingency operations who was at the scene to identify herself. The next day at 7:30 a.m. she arrived near the Jupilingo bridge, Ochsendorf says she stayed about 1.5 kilometers away, because tear gas shots were heard. At that moment next to the Tuctuc in which she was traveling, a stone fell, then a policeman grabbed her arm to leave the place. ‘There were people dressed as police throwing the stones down,’ the witness said.

Ochsendorf said she was already in a safe place when she became aware of the arrest of Prensa Comunitaria journalist Norma Sancir, who had her hands shackled forward. ‘We already saw that Norma arrives handcuffed with police officers on the sides,’ she told the court judge. ‘As I recall, she didn’t have her backpack, nor did she have her press card that she was carrying the day before,’ she said.

Subsequently, according to the witness, they went to the PNC police station in Chiquimula, where the journalist was being held, to verify her physical condition and the reason for her detention. Four other people were arrested at the scene that morning. In the conversation according to Ochsendorf she told them what had happened. ‘She also failed to reach the place, they stopped her almost when she got off the Tuctuc. They had taken out their press equipment, their camera and that’s it,’ she said.

According to the witness, the police repression that day was the most violent she had seen during her stay in Guatemala, despite the fact that her job is to make observations so that the rights of the demonstrators are not violated. The testimony of the witness was given by videoconference from the Guatemalan consulate in Germany.

The trial continues this Wednesday August 16.

Further reading: RCMP has no national policy on policing media at protest sites: FOI (The Globe and Mail, August 12, 2023). This article highlights: “The RCMP [Royal Canadian Mounted Police] says it has no clear-cut policy on how to handle journalists when Mounties [notably the controversial C-IRG unit] are breaking up protests such as those at remote resource sites, despite court decisions guiding the need to respect the freedom of Canada’s press in these tense situations. A freedom-of-information request filed after the November 2021, arrest of photojournalist Amber Bracken at the Wet’suwet’en pipeline standoff in northern B.C., was recently returned by the federal police force with the acknowledgment that it did not have a protocol on this issue.”

Photo of Norma Sancir.

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