Shot ac­tivist’s fam­ily con­demn ‘cover-up’ as Hon­duras trial starts

Court has been ‘grossly neg­li­gent,’ says daugh­ter of Berta Cáceres be­fore mur­der trial of eight men

The Observer - - World - Nina Lakhani

The trial of eight men ac­cused of the mur­der of the en­vi­ron­men­tal ac­tivist Berta Cáceres will be­gin in Hon­duras to­mor­row amid ac­cu­sa­tions of a po­lit­i­cal cover-up.

Cáceres was shot dead just be­fore mid­night on 2 March 2016 at her home in La Esper­anza in western Hon­duras, af­ter a long bat­tle against a hy­dro­elec­tric dam project on ter­ri­tory con­sid­ered sa­cred to the indige­nous Lenca peo­ple. Her death sparked in­ter­na­tional con­dem­na­tion and con­firmed the Cen­tral Amer­i­can coun­try’s sta­tus as the most dan­ger­ous in the world for en­vi­ron­men­tal and land-rights de­fend­ers.

Gus­tavo Cas­tro, a Mex­i­can en­vi­ron­men­tal­ist, was shot in the same at­tack but sur­vived by pre­tend­ing to be dead. The eight de­fen­dants are also ac­cused of his at­tempted mur­der. All deny the charges.

Cáceres, who was co­or­di­na­tor of the Coun­cil of Pop­u­lar and Indige­nous Or­gan­i­sa­tions of Hon­duras (Copinh), led op­po­si­tion to the in­ter­na­tion­ally fi­nanced Agua Zarca dam on the Gual­car­que river, which trig­gered a wave of re­pres­sion, in­clud­ing vi­o­lent evic­tions, sur­veil­lance, sex­ual ha­rass­ment, false crim­i­nal charges and mul­ti­ple death threats. The dam was li­censed to the com­pany De­sar­rol­los En­ergéti­cos SA (Desa).

Cáceres’s fam­ily have urged the au­thor­i­ties to con­duct a broad in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the cam­paign of ter­ror, rather than fo­cus­ing on her mur­der as an iso­lated at­tack.

An in­ves­ti­ga­tion pub­lished by an in­ter­na­tional group of lawyers last year sug­gested a pat­tern of in­fil­tra­tion, sur­veil­lance, crim­i­nal con­spir­acy, il­licit as­so­ci­a­tion and cor­rup­tion tar­get­ing Cáceres and Copinh. The re­port con­cluded that a network of Hon­duran state agents and se­nior Desa ex­ec­u­tives had been in­volved in the events lead­ing to Cáceres’s death. Desa de­nies any wrong­do­ing and re­jects the re­port as bi­ased.

At pre-trial pub­lic hear­ings in Tegu­ci­galpa last week, the court re­jected pe­ti­tions by the fam­ily’s lawyers to al­low ex­pert wit­ness tes­ti­mony about the roles, re­spon­si­bil­i­ties and con­nec­tions be­tween the ac­cused as part of an al­leged crim­i­nal struc­ture. The court also re­jected re­quests to call Desa’s fi­nan­cial man­ager, Daniel Atala Mi­dence, and mem­bers of the board as wit­nesses.

Ber­tita Zúñiga Cáceres, the murdered leader’s daugh­ter and cur­rent Copinh co­or­di­na­tor, con­demned the court’s ac­tions as “grossly neg­li­gent” and said the de­ci­sion was part of a wider ef­fort to con­ceal the truth.

Last month, the at­tor­ney gen­eral was forced to ad­mit that in­ves­ti­ga­tors had failed to re­view mo­bile phones, tablets, com­put­ers, hard drives, USB drives and doc­u­ments con­fis­cated dur­ing the ar­rests and raids more than two years ear­lier. The ad­mis­sion came af­ter 35 re­quests by the fam­ily’s lawyers for ac­cess to ev­i­dence had been stonewalled. Anal­y­sis is un­der way, but “it is a race against time with no guar­an­tee it will be ready or ad­mit­ted by the judges”, said a per­son with close knowl­edge of the case.

Cáceres, who was killed two days be­fore her 45th birth­day, was awarded the pres­ti­gious Gold­man prize in 2015 for lead­ing the cam­paign to stop con­struc­tion of the dam. Her death was the most high-pro­file since the 2009 mil­i­tary-backed coup in Hon­duras, which un­leashed a wave of vi­o­lence against com­mu­nity lead­ers, lawyers, jour­nal­ists and hu­man rights de­fend­ers.

Two of the de­fen­dants are di­rectly linked to Desa: Ser­gio Ro­dríguez Orel­lana, the firm’s com­mu­ni­ties and en­vi­ron­men­tal man­ager, and the US-trained for­mer army lieu­tenant Dou­glas Bustillo, the com­pany se­cu­rity chief be­tween 2013 and 2015. Cáceres ac­cused both men of threat­en­ing her and Copinh col­leagues, which they deny.

Two oth­ers have mil­i­tary links. Mar­i­ano Díaz Chávez is an ac­tive US-trained spe­cial forces ma­jor who had served in Iraq with coali­tion forces and as a UN peace­keeper. Díaz had served as the spe­cial forces in­tel­li­gence chief. He trained with Bustillo, and the pair re­mained close.

Henry Javier Hernán­dez Ro­dríguez, a for­mer spe­cial forces sol­dier who worked un­der the com­mand of Díaz, is the only sus­pect who ad­mits to be­ing at Cáceres’s house on the night of the mur­der. Hernán­dez, who was ar­rested in Mex­ico, de­nies killing Cáceres. The for­mer sol­dier was work­ing in pri­vate se­cu­rity with Bustillo at the time of the mur­der.

In March, Desa’s ex­ec­u­tive pres­i­dent, David Castillo Me­jía, was de­tained and will face trial sep­a­rately. Castillo, a US-trained for­mer in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cer, has been charged with be­ing the “in­tel­lec­tual au­thor” of the crime. Tes­ti­fy­ing af­ter his ar­rest, Castillo strongly de­nied any link to the mur­der and said that he and Cáceres were in fact friends.

Desa in­sists the com­pany has been wrongly tar­geted by pros­e­cu­tors due to pres­sure from hu­man rights groups, the me­dia and Copinh.

“There’s been a fraud­u­lent cam­paign to link in­no­cent peo­ple to a cap­i­tal crime with ab­so­lutely no ev­i­dence … This is an eco­nomic at­tack against en­trepreneurs try­ing to bring jobs to Cen­tral Amer­ica,” said Desa’s lawyer Robert Am­s­ter­dam. “The fail­ure of the gov­ern­ment to share in­for­ma­tion should ring alarm bells with any­one who cares about jus­tice.”

At the time of her death, Cáceres was in­volved in nu­mer­ous po­lit­i­cal and so­cial strug­gles.

A spokesman for the pub­lic pros­e­cu­tor’s of­fice said that dis­clo­sure rules had been fol­lowed. “We are con­fi­dent about the ev­i­dence against the nine men charged as a re­sult of our mul­ti­dis­ci­plinary team in­ves­ti­ga­tion sup­ported by Amer­i­can in­ves­ti­ga­tors. The in­ves­ti­ga­tion to find the re­main­ing in­tel­lec­tual au­thors [mas­ter­minds] con­tin­ues but the case is prac­ti­cally re­solved.”

The trial is ex­pected to run un­til 19 Oc­to­ber.

One re­port said her group was tar­geted through in­fil­tra­tion and sur­veil­lance by a network that in­cluded state agents

Berta Cáceres led a cam­paign against a hy­dro­elec­tric dam. She was shot dead in 2016.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.