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The Honduran Supreme Court yesterday handed justice to the family of Berta Cáceres who pursued a five-year legal battle against the CEO of energy development company DESA for the murder of 45 year-old Berta – a mother, environmentalist and human rights activist.
Emotional scenes erupted outside the courtroom as David Castillo’s guilty verdict was delivered in front of her family, members of COPINH (the rights organisation co-founded by Berta) and the many supporters who campaigned continuously for her justice. In a landmark ruling, the CEO of DESA will be sentenced in August for murdering Berta, who campaigned against the construction of the Agua Zarca Dam on the Gualcarque River. Castillo was convicted as a co-collaborator in ordering the murder, which means that the other co-collaborators are still to be brought to justice. Lawyers anticipate a 20–30-year prison term to be handed down for the crime.
Honduras is the most dangerous country in the world for land and environmental defenders. Castillo’s conviction sent a wave of relief across the country. The verdict is a historic win and will set a precedent for human rights and environmental cases similar to this around the world. Prior to Castillo’s conviction, four paid assassins, an active-duty military officer, and two former DESA executives were also charged with the murder of Berta.
The internationally acclaimed activist was shot dead by gunmen in her bedroom five years ago as she campaigned to defend the ancestral lands for her community. Before her death, Berta received repeated death threats after successfully pressuring builders of a hydro-electric dam to stop their project from going ahead but continued her quest for human rights for all.
Proceedings against Castillo have been ongoing since 2018 with his defence team delaying the case for two years. This, coupled with the lack of judicial independence, remained a challenge throughout the process. The case encountered many obstacles and setbacks along the way and lawyers on the case say that without the support and constant monitoring of institutions such as the United Nations, the EU, civil society in Honduras and abroad and the international media, the case would have never reached the verdict stage. Through the evidence presented by the Public Prosecutor’s Office and the prosecution representing Berta’s family, the trial established that Castillo was a key player, serving as a liaison between the 7-man hit squad, convicted three years ago.
For full justice to be done the State of Honduras must prosecute those who masterminded and financed the murder as well as cancelling the current concession on the Gualcarque River which is operated by DESA. The Honduran community is also calling on authorities to continue the trial for alleged fraudulent practices employed by DESA to obtain the Agua Zarca energy generation contract with the national electricity company.
Berta sacrificed her life fighting for a fairer society for mankind. Her assassination wasn’t just a blow to people in Honduras but to communities all over the world.
Berta’s killing embodies the risk that environmentalists and human rights activists in Honduras are facing every day. Communities like Berta’s are still actively fighting for the protection of their family land, in similar circumstances. In her life and in her death, Berta Cáceres has become a symbol of hope and courage for justice.
According to the latest Global Witness report, Honduras has the highest per capita murder rate of these human rights defenders in the world. The lack of justice for the many activists killed and attacked in Honduras for defending ancestral land rights and the environment remains systemic, but Berta’s case has become a symbol of hope for Honduras to break down the wall of impunity. This is a unique moment to break with the impunity that all too often surrounds cases involving human rights defenders. The widespread anger generated by Berta’s murder built a national and international movement seeking justice under the slogan #JusticiaParaBerta.
Berta Cáceres was an internationally renowned activist who was shot dead in 2016 after a long battle against corporate power. She led her community’s struggle to stop construction of an internationally financed hydroelectric dam in Honduras, on the Gualcarque river, which the indigenous Lenca people consider sacred. She was shot in her own home for leading this campaign in defence of the environment and human rights in her country. Berta was co-founder of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH) and garnered international acclaim when she was awarded the Goldman environmental prize in 2015 for her role in stopping the building of the Agua Zarca dam.