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Human Rights Groups Ask International Commission to Investigate Police Killing of U.S. Environmental Activist

Last week, Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, The Southern Center for Human Rights, and the University of Dayton Human Rights Center filed a petition before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) requesting a Department of Justice investigation into the 2023 murder of Manuel Esteban Páez Terán (known as “Tortuguita”), an environmental activist who was killed by police while peacefully protesting the construction of Atlanta’s “Cop City” facility. The petition, which was filed on behalf of Manuel’s mother Belkis Terán, highlights the lack of accountability in Manuel’s case and the systemic issues that contributed to their death, including alarming national trends of criminalizing protesters and unchecked police violence.

Manuel, a 26-year-old nonbinary activist, was killed on January 18, 2023 during a police raid in an Atlanta forest – marking the first-ever instance of U.S. law enforcement killing an environmental activist. Autopsy reports indicate that officers shot Manuel with at least 14 bullets, producing over 50 wounds, while they sat cross-legged on the ground with their hands raised.

“We’ve repeatedly asked the district attorneys and police for information, body camera footage, and other records about what happened that day. We’ve received nothing from them,” said Ms. Terán. “The lack of information in addition to the police’s attempts to destroy Manuel’s reputation has doubled our grief. Without more information, I feel that I haven’t had a fair opportunity to defend Manuel.”

Since Manuel’s death, Georgia state officials and officers have refused to release evidence, omitted key details, and changed their narrative. The state’s original report claimed that Manuel fired at a state trooper, but autopsies later revealed that Manuel did not have gunpowder residue on their hands. Due to these and other inconsistencies, several Georgia lawmakers have called for an independent investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice – calls that remain unanswered.

“More than a year after Manuel’s death at the hands of Georgia law enforcement, the Department of Justice still hasn’t launched an investigation,” said Delia Addo-Yobo, staff attorney at Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights. “The government’s refusal to pursue justice is disheartening. We are hopeful that the IACHR will succeed where the U.S. has failed, holding state actors accountable and providing some measure of closure for Ms. Belkis and her family.”

“The tragic killing of Manuel Teran is instructive as to the dangers of unconstrained state power, especially when consolidated around policing and political repression. By petitioning this body and exposing the significant harm the City of Atlanta and State of Georgia have caused in their quest to build one of the largest police militarization facilities in the world, Manuel’s parents are demonstrating great courage,” said Tiffany Roberts, director of public policy at the Southern Center for Human Rights

“The U.S. government has obligations under international law to extend special protection to environmental human rights defenders. By petitioning this regional body, Terán’s mother has an opportunity to pursue justice and accountability for the killing of her child,” added Joel R. Pruce, director at the University of Dayton Human Rights Center.

Manuel’s murder is emblematic of the United States’ broader crackdown on civic spaces and the right to protest, and its longstanding issues with police brutality. Since December 2022, dozens of Stop Cop City protesters have been arrested and accused of domestic terrorism for acts that ranged from sleeping in hammocks to throwing fireworks. In September 2023, the Georgia Attorney General charged 61 Stop Cop City activists under Georgia’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (commonly referred to as “RICO,” an act originally intended to combat organized crime). In essence, this indictment alleged that opposing Cop City amounts to a criminal enterprise – a move that has far-reaching and chilling implications on First Amendment rights to speech, assembly, and association.

“Manuel’s death marks a new, terrifying trend as it relates to capitalism and environmental justice,” said Reverend Keyanna Jones, an Atlanta-based pastor and community organizer. “I implore the Commission to examine this petition, as human rights defenders in the United States need the support of the international community.”

Ms. Terán and the participating organizations have asked the Inter-American Commission to review Manuel’s case and call for necessary remedies, including an independent investigation, the release of requested police records, a public apology, and a national database that tracks police killings and misconduct. Read the petition in full here.

About Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights
We are a nonpartisan, not-for-profit organization that has worked to realize Robert F. Kennedy’s dream of a more just and peaceful world since 1968. In partnership with local activists, we advocate for key human rights issues—championing change makers and pursuing strategic litigation at home and around the world. And to ensure change that lasts, we foster a social-good approach to business and investment and educate millions of students about human rights and social justice.

About the Southern Center for Human Rights
The Southern Center for Human Rights is working for equality, dignity, and justice for people impacted by the criminal legal system in the Deep South. SCHR fights for a world free from mass incarceration, the death penalty, the criminalization of poverty, and racial injustice.

About the University of Dayton Human Rights Center
The University of Dayton Human Rights Center works to advance human rights by conducting research-driven, participatory advocacy; educating future practitioners; and fostering inclusive and reflective dialogue and learning that promotes innovation and deepens impact. Inspired by our Catholic Marianist identity, we work through sustainable partnerships with human rights practitioners and justice organizations in Ohio, the United States and around the world.