Human Rights Organizations Petition for DOJ Investigation of Police Killing of Manuel “Tortuguita” Paez Terán

Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, the Southern Center for Human Rights, and the University of Dayton Human Rights Center are calling for state accountability


Tortuguita pictured sitting in nature. Photo credit: Stop Cop City ATL

This morning, three human rights organizations filed a petition with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) asking for a formal Department of Justice investigation into the January 2023 murder of environmental activist Manuel “Tortuguita” Paez Terán. In addition to an investigation, Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights (RFKHR), with the Southern Center for Human Rights (SCHR) and the University of Dayton Human Rights Center (UDHRC), calls for previously requested police records to be released, including body camera footage; a public apology to the family; and for the creation of a national database to track law enforcement killings and misconduct.

On the morning of Jan. 18, 2023, a task force of multiple law enforcement agencies raided Weelaunee People’s Park in the South River Forest near the proposed site of the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center, better known as Cop City. Police shot at Terán at least 14 times, leaving them with 57 bullet wounds, according to autopsy reports. Reports also determined that Terán was seated cross-legged with their hands raised at the time of their death. Contrary to the state’s original report that Terán fired at officers first, gunpowder residue was not found on their hands. Police audio recording recordings from the raid suggest the gunshots attributed to Tortuguita actually came from other officers.

Terán and others were protesting the construction of Cop City, a proposed $109 million police militarization facility that would destroy hundreds of acres of the Weelaunee Forest. Their death is the first known incident of police killing an environmental activist in the country. 

“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,” said Belkis Terán, the activist’s mother, in a statement. 

As a result of numerous inconsistencies in state reports following Terán’s murder, six Georgia legislators asked for an independent DOJ investigation last April. Terán was “honored” in the White House’s Trans Day of Remembrance in 2023, but Terán’s family says state officials’ lack of transparency and refusal to release evidence have hampered their efforts to seek justice for their loved one. They hope the IACHR petition will lead to some sort of accountability.

“The fact that we are appealing to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights should cause alarm among people and make them to pay attention to what is happening in Atlanta,” said community organizer Rev. Keyanna Jones. “It is indicative of the level of repression with which we have been met in Georgia — and on a national level — in our quest for justice in Manuel’s murder. Beyond that, it gives evidence of the depths to which the state will go to cover up their own misdeeds and criminalize others.”

The organizations’ petition cites human rights violations of the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man. The IACHR promotes “the observance and protection of human rights in the Americas” and is a member of the Organization of American States, which created the declaration.

Since Terán’s death, state officials have intensified efforts to quell dissent and infringe upon activists’ civil liberties. Most notably, in September 2023, Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr indicted Cop City 61 protestors under the state’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) statute, which is commonly used for organized crime cases involving violence or financial gain. Two months later, prosecutors introduced an diary allegedly belonging to Terán as evidence of a conspiracy among the 61 indictees and those who protest Cop City as a whole. Dozens protestors have been charged with “domestic terrorism.” 

“[The petition] should also make people pay attention to the bevy of legislation that has passed through the Georgia General Assembly aimed at criminalizing people who speak out against Cop City and all that it represents,” Jones added, referring to Senate Bill 63, which criminalizes bail funds often used to release detained activists and passed the state senate in February. Gov. Brian Kemp is expected to sign it into law.

“The tragic killing of Manuel Terán is instructive as to the dangers of unconstrained state power, especially when consolidated around policing and political repression,” said Tiffany Roberts, director of public policy at the SCHR, in the press release. “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 their great courage.”

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