Honduran justice in debt: findings on access to justice in the Berta Cáceres case

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Europe/The Americas, 11 February 2020. Within weeks after the fourth anniversary of the murder of Berta Cáceres, national and international human rights organisations comprising the Qualified Observation Mission are publishing the report “A historic debt of justice”, which documents the observations, conclusions and recommendations resulting from the trial of the first eight persons prosecuted in 2018 for the murder of Berta Cáceres, an indigenous Lenca leader and coordinator of the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH) and the attempted murder of the Mexican environmentalist Gustavo Castro on 2 March 2016.

“The purpose of the report is to provide a tool that will enable Honduran society and the international community to follow up on the legal process concerning the murder of the Lenca leader, says Reynaldo Villalba, human rights defence lawyer, member of the CAJAR in Colombia, Vice-president of the Federación Internacional de los Derechos Humanos (FIDH) and a Mission member. “As human rights organisations that have continuously monitored the Berta Cáceres Case, we found it necessary to promote and evaluate respect for rights and liberties according to international standards and national regulations in cases relating to people who defend human rights and the Honduran justice system.”

The report highlights the findings of the observation made during the 2018 trial, which concluded after a conviction which established that Berta Cáceres was murdered because of her status as a human rights activist working to defend the Lenca people against the imposition in their territory of the “Agua Zarca” hydroelectric project. In view of the mastermind behind the murder, nobody was sentenced, however, David Castillo, manager of the Desarrollos Energéticos S. A. (DESA) hydroelectricity company, was arrested in 2018 and charged by the Public Prosecutor’s Office as one of the persons who masterminded the murder.

“Berta Cáceres lived in a seriously dangerous situation before her murder because of her work as an indigenous leader of the Río Blanco communities,” said Joseph Berra, an American lawyer and project director of the Promise Institute of California University in Los Angeles. “Although she reported the attacks and threats made against her in the context of installation of the DESA project, the Honduran State did not fulfil its duty of protection, despite the precautionary measures granted by the CIDH for her protection.”

Workers and former workers at the DESA company and two active members of the Honduran Armed Forces were convicted to between 30 and 50 years imprisonment after a trial that showed that Berta suffered campaigns of defamation and attempted criminalisation, along with campaigns seeking to harass her. The court accepted that it had been proved that the murder of Berta Cáceres was committed with the knowledge and consent of other executives of the DESA Company.

“The Mission has established throughout the proceedings various circumstances that demonstrate structural weaknesses in the system, which continue to represent limitations and challenges for the Honduran population’s access to justice,” Villalba explained. “This Mission reminds the State of Honduras that, by not protecting this framework of legally protected interests, such as rights to the truth and due process, it could compromise other fundamental rights. These weaknesses do not allow the State to guarantee non-repetition of serious violations of human rights such as the case of Berta Cáceres.

The report makes a series of recommendations to the Honduran State, such as taking measures to ensure effective protection of the rights of the indigenous peoples within the process according to the principle of non-discrimination and complying with international rules such as Convention 169 and implementing a regulatory and jurisprudential framework for effective punishment of representatives of the Public Prosecutor’s Office when they fail to comply with orders of the judiciary, among others.

“Since the murder of Berta Cáceres, many indigenous leaders and those of African descent have been murdered in Honduras,” Berra added. “These crimes have gone unpunished. The guarantee of non-repetition is a principle and fundamental criterion of justice in these cases. Justice in the Berta Cáceres Case will not be fully achieved until such time as responsibilities for masterminding the events and for the various actions to delay and hinder the investigation and trial of the case are established.”

Respect for the principles and standards of a fair trial is essential not only to represent credible and sustainable progress in the process of obtaining justice for the murder of Berta Cáceres but also to strengthen the justice system as a tool to guarantee the human rights of the Honduran population.
The report notes with concern other gaps and shortcomings in parallel legal cases that gave rise to little progress, such as the deliberate intention of State agents to omit, hinder and obstruct the investigation into the mastermind behind the events.

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