Berta Caceres murder trial to begin despite family’s doubts

The trial of eight men accused of taking part in the murder of Honduran indigenous rights and environmental activist Berta Caceres will begin on Monday, amid ongoing criticism of the government’s handling of the investigation into the rights defender’s killing.

Caceres was shot dead in her home in La Esperanza, Honduras just before midnight on March 2, 2016, after years of campaigning against a hydroelectric dam. All eight men have denied the charges.

Honduras is considered one of the most dangerous countries in the world for environmental and land rights activists, and even then, the murder of Caceres was shocking given that she was one of the most prominent and well-known activists in Latin America. She was the recipient of the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize before her death. The murder drew widespread condemnation from international human rights organisations and other governments, particularly for the Honduran government’s lack of protection of Caceres.

In the years before she was killed, she, along with fellow activists from the Civic Council of Indigenous and Popular Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), campaigned against the internationally-financed Agua Zarca dam project in western Honduras. During that time, other international backers, including a client of the International Finance Corporation, dropped their involvement with the project.

Flowers lie as part of a memorial to slain Honduran activist Berta Caceres, who was gunned down in her home on March 2nd, 2016 [File: Kavitha Chekuru/Al Jazeera] 

Of the eight men who will face trial on Monday are former employees of Desarrollos Energeticos (DESA), the company behind the dam project, as well as an active-duty member of the military. A ninth suspect, David Castillo, was arrested in March of this year – on the two year anniversary of the crime. He will face charges in a separate trial. At the time of his arrest, the government stated that Castillo, the executive president of DESA, was “in charge of providing logistics” for the crime, though the company has maintained his innocence.

Despite the arrests and even as the trial begins, many including the family, have expressed doubts about the government’s investigation so far and raised questions as to whether or not all of the true “intellectual authors” of her murder have been arrested.

“There aren’t adequate conditions to begin the trial for the first eight people charged,” Bertita Zuniga Caceres, one of the slain activist’s daughters, told Al Jazeera. Zuniga Caceres, who is now a coordinator with COPINH, pointed to a number of irregularities including the fact that the government has refused various court orders to provide information about the investigation to the family’s legal team.

‘Vast majority of evidence not examined’

From the beginning of the investigation, Caceres’s family and international human rights groups have called on the Honduran government to let an independent body investigate the crime, similar to the investigation by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights into the disappearance of 43 students in Guerrero, Mexico in 2014. The government has so far refused to do so. 

In light of the government’s refusal, an independent group of lawyers comprised of five lawyers from the United States, Guatemala and Colombia was organised by the family last year. In October 2017, they released a report detailing a myriad of failings by the Honduran government in the course of the investigation.  

One of the most damning conclusions of the report was that a year and a half into the investigation, the government was in possession of evidence implicating high-level business executives and state officials but had yet to act on that information.  

In their report, the group of lawyers stated that they had “been able to establish the participation of executives, managers and employees of DESA, of private security personnel hired by the company, of state agents and parallel structures to state security forces in crimes committed before, during and after March 2, 2016, the day of the assassination.”

The scene of the 2016 murder of Berta Caceres [File: Kavitha Chekuru/Al Jazeera] 

Among the evidence the independent group was available to review was a cache of documents, hard drives, text messages and WhatsApp messages. These included exchanges between Sergio Rodriguez, a social and environmental manager for DESA who is among the eight facing trial on Monday. One of the messages from him was from the day after the murder. In it, he forwards a copy of the police report of the crime scene that he received just hours after the killing to an undisclosed DESA executive. Caceres’s family had yet to receive that information.

The evidence that the group drew upon is among the evidence that the government is only now analysing, under court order. But it’s unclear if their findings will be part of the trial.

“It appears that the public ministry is about to go to trial on murder charges against eight defendants without having examined the vast majority of the evidence in state custody since May 2016,” Roxanna Altholz, one of the independent group’s authors, told Al Jazeera. She also said that state prosecutors had not “run a ballistics test on the Colt .38 revolver – the same caliber as the murder weapon – seized from the home of Mariano Diaz, a former military officer accused of the murder, or examined data from the computers seized from DESA’s headquarters.”

Caceres’s murder drew widespread condemnation from international human rights organisations and other governments [Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images]

The government’s failure to process relevant evidence and information in a timely manner has raised objections from not only Caceres’s family – but the defence as well. “The prosecutors, we believe, are withholding critical exculpatory evidence,” Robert Amsterdam, an lawyer for DESA, said in a statement to Al Jazeera.

A spokesperson for Honduras’s Public Ministry, the equivalent of the Attorney General’s office, had not responded to a request for comment from Al Jazeera at the time of publication.

The results of this trial will show whether or not the government is serious about tackling the corruption and impunity that has already stalled dozens of investigations into the murders of other activists and rights defenders.

“[This crime] should be approached with all respect to due process,” Zuniga Caceres said, “so the case isn’t exposed to annulment in the future or to the suspects being absolved due to improper proceedings.”

With additional reporting by Raul Valdivia from Tegucigalpa, Honduras.

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