The trial of eight men accused over the murder of Honduran indigenous leader Berta Cáceres has been thrown into disarray after judges ousted the victim’s lawyers from proceedings.
The legally suspect ruling in the country’s most high-profile case leaves the verdict vulnerable to appeal. The case is considered a litmus test for the justice system which has received millions of dollars of international aid in recent years
Cáceres, who won the 2015 Goldman Environmental Prize, was shot dead just before midnight on 2 March 2016 at her home in La Esperanza, in western Honduras, after a long battle against the internationally financed Agua Zarca hydroelectric dam project on the Gualcarque river, territory sacred to the indigenous Lenca people.
Her opposition to the scheme triggered a wave of smear campaigns against her, surveillance, sexual harassment, false criminal charges, multiple death threats and, ultimately, her murder. The latter sparked international condemnation and confirmed Honduras’s ranking as the most dangerous country in the world for defenders of the environment and land rights.
Gustavo Castro, a Mexican environmentalist, was also shot in the attack but survived by pretending to be dead. The eight defendants are also accused of his attempted murder. All eight deny the charges.
The start of the trial had been suspended since September when lawyers representing the Cáceres family accused the three judges of bias and abuse of authority, and petitioned they be recused and replaced.
The petition was rejected, but on Friday the lawyers lodged another appeal, insisting the judges were not competent to hear the case after a series of decisions and omissions during pre-trial hearings violated due process and demonstrated bias against the victims.
The judges initially accepted that the appeal should be admitted. Then, in a highly unusual move, after protests from the public prosecutors and defence lawyers, they ruled that the trial would open this weekend without legal representation for the victims. The judges claimed the victims’ lawyers, who presented the appeal in writing not person, had abandoned the trial. The victims, the judges said, would be adequately represented through the public prosecution.
In Honduras, the victims – in this case, the family, Copinh (the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organisations of Honduras, which Cáceres led) and Castro – are entitled to prosecute independently, alongside the state. In a statement, the family vowed to fight the decision.
Berta Zúñiga Cáceres, the murdered leader’s daughter and current Copinh coordinator, tweeted: “#Alert the court has removed our lawyers and left us without representation for the trial of those accused of murdering my mother #BertaCaceres. What worse trial could we have? #Illegaltrial: I feel devastated.”
Investigators have failed to analyse mobile phones and computers, and even a gun and bullets confiscated two years ago
The judges have prohibited video transmission of the trial, but a team of international legal observers is monitoring proceedings.
In recent months, the victims’ lawyers have frequently clashed with the judges and public prosecutor’s office over the narrow scope of the investigation and concealment of evidence which they believe amounts to a political cover-up.
In August, the attorney general was forced to admit that investigators had failed to analyse numerous mobile phones, tablets, computers, hard drives, documents, and even a gun and bullets confiscated during the arrests and raids more than two years earlier.
The family fears that the state investigation focuses on the murder purely as an isolated attack, rather than as the last criminal act of a campaign of terror against Cáceres and Copinh. An investigation published by an international group of lawyers last year concluded that a network of Honduran state agents and senior executives of the dam company Desa (Desarrollos Energéticos SA) were involved in the events leading to and after Cáceres’s death.
The court has refused to call members of the Desa board, which includes some of the Atala Zablah family, part of one of the most powerful clans in Honduras, as witnesses. Two of the defendants are linked to Desa; a third, the company president, will face trial separately. Four of the accused have military links.
Desa denies any link with the murder and claims the company and its personnel have been wrongly targeted as a result of smear campaigns.
In a statement, the family said: “This fraudulent decision by the court leaves us the victims completely defenceless, because, for two years and a half, the Public Prosecutor’s Office has demonstrated its inability and unwillingness to follow correct judicial process… it shows a commitment by the authorities to maintain in total impunity the criminal structure responsible for the systematic attacks against Copinh and the murder of Berta Cáceres.”