Exclusive: U.S. document certifies Honduras as supporting rights amid vote crisis

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. State Department has certified that the Honduran government has been fighting corruption and supporting human rights, clearing the way for Honduras to receive millions of dollars in U.S. aid, a document seen by Reuters showed.

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The document, dated Nov. 28, which was seen by Reuters on Monday, showed that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson certified Honduras for the assistance, two days after a controversial presidential election that has been claimed by an ally of Washington.

Honduras has faced violent protests over the disputed results of the election, which has still not produced a clear winner over a week after the vote ended.

The decision to issue the certification prompted concern from some congressional Democrats that Republican President Donald Trump’s administration could be seen to be taking sides.

“What kind of message does that send?” one congressional aide asked.

State Department officials did not have an immediate response when questioned about the timing of the certification.

Honduras is required to fulfill about a dozen requirements in order to receive its share of $644 million appropriated by the U.S. Congress under a program to assist Central American governments.

Among those requirements are combating corruption - including investigating and prosecuting current and former government officials alleged to be corrupt - and protecting the rights of political opposition parties.

Honduras struggles with violent drug gangs, one of the world’s highest murder rates and endemic poverty. In recent years, many Hondurans - including children - have attempted to migrate to the United States.

In hopes of stemming this migration, former President Barack Obama’s administration in 2015 came up with a plan that included sending hundreds of millions of dollars in additional aid to Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.

Congress agreed to provide the money, if the governments were found to be taking steps to fight crime and corruption.

A preliminary ballot count in Honduras on Monday pointed to a narrow victory for President Juan Orlando Hernandez over opposition challenger Salvador Nasralla, although the electoral tribunal has not declared a winner.

Early last week, Nasralla, a former sportscaster and game show host, appeared set for an upset victory over Hernandez.

The counting process suddenly halted for more than a day and began leaning in favor of Hernandez after resuming. Opposition leaders said they wanted a recount and have accused the government of stealing the election.

Hernandez, 49, implemented a military-led crackdown on gang violence after taking office in 2014. He has been supported by Trump’s chief of staff, John Kelly.

Nasralla, 64, is one of Honduras’ best-known faces and is backed by former President Manuel Zelaya, a leftist ousted in a coup in 2009.

Reporting by Patricia Zengerle, Editing by Rosalba O’Brien