Has justice been served for Berta Cáceres?

The recent convictions of seven men in Honduras for the 2016 murder of Berta Cáceres is testament to the powerful call for justice that has reverberated around the world: from Berta’s family, the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), fellow activists and Honduran social movements. Yet, as Vicki Gass explores, this is only a partial victory and the fight for justice continues.

On November 29, 2018 a Honduran criminal court convicted seven men for the murder of renowned indigenous Lenca leader and human rights defender Berta Cáceres. Ms. Cáceres was shot three times by gunmen in March 2016 in the community of La Esperanza, for leading the opposition to the Agua Zarca hydroelectric project threatening their water resources.

A litmus test for Honduran justice

In a country where corruption and impunity reign, the trial has become a litmus test as to whether justice could be served in Honduras, especially for such a high-profile case.

Significantly, seven of the eight defendants - Sergio Ramón Rodríguez (communities and environmental manager for DESA), Douglas Geovanny Bustillo (former DESA security chief and ex-US trained army lieutenant), Mariano Díaz Chávez (US-trained special forces major who served with Bustillo), Henry Javier Hernández (former special forces sergeant who served with Díaz), Elvin Rápalo, Edilson Duarte and Oscar Torres – were convicted for her murder last week.

Four of the seven were also convicted for the attempted murder of Gustavo Castro from Mexico who was visiting Ms. Cáceres at the time of her death.

An eighth defendant, Emerson Duarte, was acquitted of all responsibility.

 Goldman Environmental Prize

Berta Cáceres. Credit: Goldman Environmental Prize

Two other points are also critically important in the court findings. First of all, the court judges recognized that a high-level executive of the hydro-electric company Desarrollos Energéticos S.A. (DESA) had coordinated with the hitmen convicted of her murder. Secondly, that Ms. Cáceres´ murder was planned and carried out with “knowledge and consent” of DESA executives in retaliation for her leadership in defense of indigenous territories, especially the Gualcarque River where the Agua Zaca project is located.

For Oxfam, these are significant advances.

But was justice really served?

Many would say almost but not quite.

Ms. Cáceres’ family, COPINH, non-governmental organizations, the media, elected officials, and indigenous and human rights defenders across the globe who have been monitoring the trial are pretty much in agreement that while the court ruling reflects progress, this verdict is only the first step. Still at liberty are the masterminds behind her killing, the people who paid the assassins to pull the trigger. It is only when the intellectual authors are brought to justice and convicted that full justice will have been achieved.

Secondly, even though this verdict -- this partial justice -- was achieved, the entire process revealed that the investigatory capabilities of the Public Prosecutor’s office and the judicial system are still very weak despite millions of dollars of US and European foreign assistance to the Honduran government intended to strengthen these institutions.

Evidence was left unanalyzed by the Public Prosecutor´s office and the court proceedings were erratic with allegations of negligence and lack of transparency by Ms. Cáceres’ family, COPINH, national and international observers. The Public Prosecutor´s office failed to guarantee full access to the case file and the evidence to the victims (in this case, her family, COPINH and Gustavo Castro) as required by Honduran law.

Furthermore, the Court took the arbitrary decision to exclude from trial proceedings the private prosecutors acting on behalf of the family and COPINH. That a verdict was reached at all was seen by many as a miracle.

Nevertheless there are still steps to be taken in order to obtain full justice in this case.

In February 2019, the trial against Roberto David Castillo, the Executive President of DESA, will begin. He has been charged by the Public Prosecutor’s office of being at least one of the intellectual authors of Ms. Cáceres´ murder. We must continue to be vigilant and make sure that the Honduran courts act according to the law.

Secondly, with the conviction of Sergio Rodríguez, DESA´s communities and environmental manager, and the charges against Executive President David Castillo, there is a solid foundation to advocate for the definitive cancellation of the concession granted to DESA for the Agua Zarca hydroelectric project. Olivia Zúniga, Ms. Cáceres’ eldest daughter and recently elected legislator, introduced a bill to the National Congress on the second anniversary of her death that would cancel the concession. This is still on the waiting list for debate and approval.

Since 2016, Berta Cáceres’ death has galvanized a worldwide movement in the fight for justice and against impunity for the killings and threats against land and water rights defenders.

The recent court findings are a testament to the ongoing vigilance, tenacity and courage of Ms. Cáceres’ family, COPINH and social movements in Honduras, but their mission is not yet complete.

Justice for Ms. Cáceres’ death requires that the intellectual authors of her murder are tried and sentenced.

Justice for Ms. Cáceres’ life requires that the places that she and so many others love and care for are protected and kept safe, so that they can continue to nourish the spirit of the Lenca for generations to come.

The entry posted on 17 December 2018, by Vicki Gass, Senior Policy Advisor, Oxfam America.

Photo: Berta Cáceres' daughter, Berta Zúñiga Cáceres, at a vigil for her mother. Credit: Keith Lane

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