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In trial for eco-activist's murder, push for a full picture of justice

Why We Wrote This

What happens when you feel forced to choose between partial justice, and maybe none at all? Children of a slain environmental activist say they’re willing to delay her landmark case, in hopes of securing a fairer trial that can set a precedent. 

Fernando Antonio/AP
Women carry images of slain environmental activist Berta Caceres on International Women's Day in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, on March 8, 2016. Caceres, who won the 2015 Goldman Environmental Prize for her role in fighting a dam project, was killed by unknown assailants on March 3, 2016. She had previously complained of receiving threats from police, soldiers, and local landowners because of her work.

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Honduras is a dangerous place to be an environmental activist. At least 120 have been killed here since 2010. But if people recognize just one of their names, it is likely Berta Cáceres, whose years of advocacy won her the prestigious Goldman Prize in 2015. One year later, she was shot to death in her home. Earlier this month, it seemed the trial for her murder was finally set to begin, in a region where such accountability is rare. But her supporters have pushed back against court decisions about evidence and witnesses. On Monday, Honduras’s supreme court indefinitely delayed the trial, in response to a series of appeals from Ms. Cáceres’s family’s lawyers. They argue it’s the only way to ensure a precedent for other activists, and those who threaten them, across Latin America. Roxanna Altholz, a University of California, Berkeley law professor, served on an independent panel that published a 2017 report on Cáceres’s death. “One reason I joined the team is I felt if she could be murdered with impunity then anyone doing this kind of human rights work is vulnerable,” says Professor Altholz.

The long-awaited criminal trial for the murder of environmental activist Berta Cáceres sputtered to a halt before it could begin this week, underscoring the prevalence of violence against environmental defenders and widespread impunity across Latin America.

Her trial – set to take place more than two-and-a-half years after her death, and amid accusations of Honduran officials withholding evidence – stands out for its mere existence. Here in one of the world’s most dangerous places for environmental defenders, their murders rarely result in anyone being held accountable, observers say.

But the hearings were thrown off course by a series of appeals filed by the victim’s family’s lawyers, who say the three judges overseeing the case should be replaced. The appeals could delay the case for days – or possibly months – but Cáceres’ family say it is the only way to ensure true justice for the victim and her accused killers. Given how high-profile the case is, the government is under pressure to hold a trial. But rather than go through the motions of accountability, supporters say they want to see justice carried out to the letter of the law.

Ms. Cáceres was one of the most well-known activists in the region, receiving the prestigious Goldman Prize in 2015 after speaking out for decades about indigenous and women’s rights, in addition to the environment. She and the Civic Council of Indigenous and Popular Organizations of Honduras (COPINH) protested the internationally financed Agua Zarca hydrodam. After years of intimidation, detentions, and killings of protesters who opposed the 21-megawat dam, Cáceres had long predicted she would be murdered.

Colleagues in COPINH and her family say they want to ensure her death isn’t just one more on the long tally sheet of environmental activist murders, which added up to 200 people worldwide in 2016 alone. That means not only continuing to fight for the protection of land from lucrative megaprojects and extractive industries, but pushing to set an example of justice for activists under threat around the world.

Berta’s murder “is a message [from the government] for all other defenders of life, the environment, diversity, youth, and women to make them afraid,” says Rodil Vásquez, one of the lawyers representing Cáceres’ mother and four children. “We are trying to create a precedent” of demanding justice.

Those who coordinated and carried out the assassination “probably imagined that two days or two weeks [after her murder] the scandal would stop. They didn’t imagine this strong network, two years later, still insisting on justice for Berta Cáceres,” says Laura Zúñiga Cáceres, the slain activist’s youngest daughter.

Fernando Antonio/AP
Men accused of killing prize-winning Honduran indigenous and environmental rights activist Berta Caceres enter the court room in Tegucigalpa, Honduras on Sept. 17, 2018. Honduras' supreme court has indefinitely suspended the start of their trial, citing five related filings pending at the criminal appeals court that have to be resolved.

'Effective impunity'

This week, Honduras’ supreme court indefinitely suspended the trial of eight men accused of murdering Cáceres on the night of March 2, 2016, in her home in the mountain town of La Esperanza. Despite efforts by her family’s legal team, the case was to be limited to events taking place the day of the murder, excluding evidence that could show how the assassination was planned out, who conceived the idea, or who hired hitmen, not just those who allegedly pulled the trigger.

A 2017 report published by a panel of independent lawyers with experience in human rights law and prosecuting war crimes found that the company behind the dam was linked to Cáceres’ murder, and that the district attorney’s office had enough evidence to arrest company executives, but had failed to do so.

Honduras is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for environmental activists, according to the London-based nongovernmental organization Global Witness. At least 120 have been killed since 2010.

Demand for natural resources has gone up over the past decade, which makes defending the environment even riskier, says John Knox, who served as the United Nations’ first special rapporteur on human rights and the environment for six years, until stepping down in July.

“There are three overarching factors” that put environmental activists at risk globally, Mr. Knox says. There’s more competition for natural resources; communities in remote areas where those resources are found are often already marginalized, without power in business or government; and, perhaps most importantly, there’s often an absence of the rule of law.

“When you have effective impunity, like the absence of prosecution or other kinds of consequences for harassing or killing environmental defenders – that’s when you see these incredibly large numbers of cases,” he says.

The Agua Zarca dam project that Cáceres organized against was to be built along the Gualcarque River. The surrounding indigenous Lenca communities, who consider the river sacred, feared the effects on their land. The project was licensed without prior consultation of the communities, which is required under Honduran law. The message of Cáceres’s movement gained traction – so much that lenders pulled out of the project. In 2013, the president of the country’s private business council said Cáceres’ efforts were “making Honduras look bad” on the international stage.

Ann Hermes/Staff
Laura Zúñiga Cáceres, daughter of slain environmental activist Berta Cáceres, was joined by her family's lawyer, Rodil Vásquez, in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. This week, the country’s supreme court indefinitely suspended the trial of eight men accused of murdering Ms. Cáceres. Murders of environmental defenders rarely result in anyone held accountable, observers say.

Cementing a legacy

Ms. Zúñiga Cáceres sways back and forth in her chair after a long day of pre-trial meetings.

We’ve pursued this case “not just for Honduras, but the entire region,” she says. “If there’s impunity [in my mother’s case], that means there will be more violence. It will be a message that they can touch whomever they want and nothing will happen.

“We are fighting to guarantee that this won’t happen again."

From the beginning, Cáceres’ family and COPINH colleagues campaigned for an independent investigation into her killing carried out by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, but the Honduran government rejected the proposal. As the court date neared, key witnesses and evidence in support of the family’s case were repeatedly rejected.

They have asked for the three judges hearing the case to recuse themselves and for the trial to take place in a venue that can guarantee the impartiality of justice promised under Honduran law.

“This case is unique in that it is actually both unique and representative,” says Roxanna Altholz, a University of California, Berkeley law professor and member of the independent panel that published the 2017 report on Cáceres’ death. 

It’s very common to be killed for environmental activism, especially in Latin America. But she says it’s unusual for a legal team to have access to evidence like cell phone records, which have been available in this investigation due to a Honduran constitutional law. That data helped paint a picture of the long-term planning involved in Cáceres’ murder, according to the independent report – including an aborted murder attempt weeks prior to her death. 

The court ruled most of that evidence inadmissible in the trial, another aspect the family’s legal team is fighting.

“I didn’t have the opportunity to meet Berta Cáceres, but one reason I joined the team is I felt if she could be murdered with impunity then anyone doing this kind of human rights work is vulnerable,” says Dr. Altholz. “It’s amazing, these individuals [accused of her murder] were having conversations via WhatsApp about what they were doing.

“That signals a certainty that they were never going to be held accountable.”

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