Maurilio Santiago Reyes with Cedhapi member Maria de la Luz Martínez, during a visit to Santo Domingo de Ixcatlán in 2011The Human Rights and Defence Resource Centre for Indigenous Peoples (Cedhapi) is a civil organisation established fifteen years ago, with the aim of defending the human rights of indigenous peoples using a legal approach, and international mechanisms. It also assists with reporting abuses and following these up, and capacity-building.   

Talking about the work human rights defenders in a state like Oaxaca is very complicated. In my particular case, we can see how the work we have done for twenty years has evolved… I think the difference comes mostly from the means used for the defence of human rights. And what I mean by that is this: before a violation of rights was simply denounced by an organisation as part of its political activity, but without using legal resources.

I think that with the emergence of NGOs and the field of human rights, which is now taught in some universities, the view of lawyers has started to change. Some have been converted, and I my case I consider myself a lawyer and a human rights lawyer above all, rather than an activist. In our experience, using legal resources is very important for the defence of human rights.

Activists deprived of their freedom

There was a very important case of the Aguilar Sánchez brothers, social leaders and environmental activists who were deprived of their freedom for defending their forests, and sentenced to thirty years in prison.

For us, it was one of the most important cases when we got involved because the challenge was to gain their freedom when we knew they were innocent, that they had been tortured and unfairly accused of felling trees.

Another case which we could also say was very important was that of seven ethnic Chatinos who were accused of being Central Americans immigrants, but they were indigenous Chatinos who had presented their credentials. Despite this they were thrown in jail, accused of being illegal immigrants in their own country simply for being members of an indigenous people.

We took over the defence of these seven Chatinos. We had an office in Oaxaca, answered their call and presented a criminal complaint against the Public Prosecutor’s Office, because they had been tortured and beaten. This became a turning point for us, because by taking on this case, without our knowledge we were taking on a network of people traffickers controlled by the state government itself…

Feelings of fear: the first death threat

That day we received death threats for the first time. I had to leave Oaxaca… We went back, but it was the first time we felt afraid to do our work.

We continued our human rights defence work with more high-risk cases. They were all like that, because TIajiaco was a place where many things happened… We had to handle various factions, and take on the police on many occasions.

We denounced the Public Prosecutor’s Office, then we were threatened by ministry officials and we still managed to keep working. We made a list of people we denounced, something like twelve members of the police, of which a few were from the Prosecutor’s Office or the prevention forces, and it was generally a tough situation where we were taking on the state by legal means.

PBI accompaniment: an invaluable difference

I believe that PBI accompaniment is invaluable not least because it’s an international organisation whose presence in a particular place signifies that there are eyes everywhere. It is not so easy, but it is better than walking alone.

I'll give you an example. Suddenly, there was fighting in Santo Domingo de Ixcatlán. They were taking on the power of the chiefs there and of course, they felt inexperienced and afraid about the consequences. We know that [there can be] fatal consequences…

When we arrived, our advantage was that Cedhapi was already known internationally... Presence is like a light in the dark. We were visible. This is what it means to have PBI here.

Appreciating life's beautiful moments

One of the most beautiful moments in my life was going before the Inter-American Commission when they granted us precautionary measures, a very good case. And another great moment was when we managed to establish the workgroup on arbitrary detention.

They granted urgent measures for 135 prisoners in 2006 after we had previously been to Geneva working with a group there. I think moments like that are important… They give you the strength to carry on.  

One of my goals is to get involved in the field of education, but maybe what I did not realise is that there is just one of me, when I should probably triplicate and share my knowledge to strengthen the work of human rights defence.

I know that education helped me a lot; it enriched my work as a human rights defender because it gave me experiences others, unfortunately, cannot get. It has taken me to places where things are happening.

I’m talking about spiritual treasures, treasures of knowledge and experiences. Not economic ones [laughs] – I don’t even have a car.

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