Shawn Pogatchnik / MSNBC – 2009-05-10 08:59:19
DUBLIN (May 8, 2009) — A leading Guatemalan environmentalist who recently survived an assassination attempt won an international human rights award Friday for his efforts to stop the rapid development of mines in the mineral-rich Central American nation.
Dr. Yuri Melini received the annual Front Line Award for Human Rights Defenders at Risk from American actor Martin Sheen in a Dublin City Hall ceremony attended by dozens of Irish politicians and human rights activists.
Melini, 47, had to use a walker to reach the winner’s podium. In September, he was shot seven times in his stomach and legs on a Guatemala City street — just three months after winning a four-year legal battle against the Guatemalan government and mining companies. Nobody has been charged with the attack.
“I accept this reward on behalf of the people of Guatemala, because the environment belongs to everyone, not just to one small group,” said Melini, who has spent two decades promoting a range of causes related to protecting Guatemala’s wilderness and nature reserves and the indigenous Maya people who live there.
In remarks translated from Spanish, Melini said he has continued to receive death threats following the attempt on his life. He said he hoped international recognition would spur Guatemalan authorities to expose those behind the intimidation and to solve several killings of environmental activists and park rangers in the country.
Melini said the attack, which destroyed his left knee and much of his small intestine, “has made me value the work that I do. I now have more courage and humanity.”
Melini, who trained as a doctor before turning full time to human rights work in 1986, founded and directs the Center for Environmental Law and Social Action. His pressure group has repeatedly challenged the right of the Guatemalan government to permit foreign companies to explore for resources in rain forests and other protected landscapes.
Initially he focused on stopping the clearance of forests by loggers and cattlemen. More recently he has spearheaded opposition to the easy granting of licenses to foreign mining companies looking for gold, silver, zinc and other minerals.
He achieved his biggest victory in June 2008, when the country’s Constitutional Court struck down parts of Guatemala’s permissive Mining Law on the grounds it wasn’t protecting the rights of citizens living near the mines.
Melini highlighted how mines ruined the residents’ environment, including by polluting their drinking water, and had displaced Mayans from their villages and farms without legal recourse.
When asked Friday which criminal gang or business group might be targeting him, Melini said he couldn’t be certain. He noted that cocaine-smuggling gangs are also opposed to environmentalists’ work and are the best-armed, most dangerous element in Guatemala.
“My work makes many powerful enemies,” he told The Associated Press through a translator. “The most obvious, logical position is that the attack had something to do with my stand against the rampant mining in my country, given the timing of the attack.
“But the drug traffickers would have their own reasons for wanting to crush the environmental movement. They want to exercise control over the countryside themselves,” he said. “And we would never rule out government involvement.”
Front Line is a Dublin-based group founded in 2001 to provide support for human rights activists operating in dangerous situations. A panel of Irish politicians selected Melini from a list of nominees that included finalists from Colombia, Kenya and Thailand.
Front Line — which is funded by Ireland’s wealthiest businessman, telecoms tycoon Denis O’Brien — helped pay Melini’s hospital bills after his shooting. So far, he has undergone four operations to repair his internal organs and legs.
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