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Experts Demand Fair & Lawful Ruling This Week in Berta Cáceres' Trial in Honduras

For immediate release

The Americas/Europe, June 30, 2021

The Expert Observation Mission, a group of 19 organizations with expertise in international law and human rights, has observed the trial of David Castillo as alleged co-perpetrator of the murder of Lenca human rights and environmental defender Berta Cáceres. The Mission notes that during nearly 50 days of hearings, the defense was given ample opportunity to respond to the robust presentation of evidence by the public and private Prosecutors and hopes that judicial independence will prevail in the final decision of the Court, which will be issued this week.

Military intelligence officer Roberto David Castillo Mejía, former general manager of the Desarrollos Energéticos (DESA) hydroelectric company, is accused of participating in the murder of the Lenca defender on March 2, 2016, along with already convicted perpetrators. The closing statements were presented on June 28, with the accusing parties requesting that the court convict David Castillo for his key role in the crime.

During the trial, the Public Prosecutor's Office and the Private Prosecutors presented different means of evidence that David Castillo coordinated a long campaign of surveillance, harassment and threats against Berta Cáceres, in her capacity as general coordinator of the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), after she began to accompany the Lenca Indigenous communities of Río Blanco who were asserting territorial rights in light of the installation of the Agua Zarca hydroelectric dam by DESA beginning in 2013.

Through various testimonies, it was shown that DESA did not have the consent of the affected communities to move forward with the hydroelectric project and that because of their resistance they were victims of violence, including the destruction of their subsistence crops, criminalization and violent attacks. Likewise, it was shown that those in favor of the project in the area were affiliated with the company. The head of the investigation testified that, although initially there were several lines of investigation, the clear motive for the murder was to stop resistance to the hydroelectric project.

State experts showed that while the attacks were taking place at the local level, David Castillo was in regular contact with Berta Cáceres via phone calls and WhatsApp messages. Telecommunications expert Brenda Barahona explained that seeking information and offering gift were practices employed by Castillo and respond to military intelligence tactics.

In her testimony, Berta Cáceres’s daughter, Bertha Zúniga, stated that her mother had told her directly that she was afraid of David Castillo, as she was worried that he would use his military intelligence training against her. She also stated that her mother and COPINH faced a terrible smear campaign for leading the fight against the Agua Zarca project and that months before the assassination, her mother sat her children down to talk about what they would do if she was killed.

Telecommunications evidence showed that communications between David Castillo and Douglas Bustillo, a military officer who worked for DESA security and later directly for Castillo, and who was convicted of the murder in 2018, were constant, especially around the alleged failed attempt to assassinate Berta Caceres in early February 2016 and later to coordinate logistical actions prior to March 2.

Expert witness Harald Waxenecker demonstrated a pattern of compartmentalization of the communications of the criminal structure that planned and executed the crime: Bustillo's communications to the rest of the group of hitmen, also convicted in 2018, the communications between Castillo and Bustillo, as well communications between Castillo and DESA executives and directors through the WhatsApp group "PHAZ Security" (Agua Zarca Hydroelectric Project). All of these communications were sustained through strictly separate channels, as a clear military strategy that responded to the protection of the chain of command.

This evidence also demonstrated that communications between Castillo and Berta changed once the assassination plan was set in motion in early 2016. His previously friendly demeanor changed and when Berta rebuked him, he refused to respond.

For its part, the evidence of the defense focused on testimonies of people with ties to the DESA company and the report of telecommunications expert Shaun Vodde. All this evidentiary material and its interrogation throughout the trial was intended to prove that the Public Prosecutor's Office did not exhaust all the lines of investigation necessary to find the real perpetrator of the murder, and that on the contrary, the prosecutors and investigators manipulated the procedures and evidence to incriminate their client David Castillo.

The Observation Mission recognizes the efforts of the Court to make public the proceedings of the trial, through public broadcast on the Judiciary's social media networks. Despite not being the ideal scenario for a proper observation, we hope that the ruling will be issued according to law and in guarantee of due process norms and standards.

Press contacts

Expert Observation Mission:

WhatsApp +1 902 3242584

Center for Research and Human Rights Promotion (CIPRODEH), Honduras

Center for Legal Assistance to Indigenous Peoples (CALPI), Nicaragua

Center for Legal Action on Human Rights (CALDH), Guatemala

Guatemala Human Rights Commission (GHRC-USA), USA

José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers' Collective Corporation (CAJAR), Colombia

Human Rights Legal Team (EJDH), Honduras

Reflection, Research and Communication Team (ERIC-sj), Honduras

Estudio Arbizu & Gamarra, Peru

FIDH, in the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, International

Spanish Lawyers Foundation, Spain

Due Process of Law Foundation (DPLF), USA

National Lawyers Guild, International Committee, USA

Impunity Watch, Guatemala

Promise Institute for Human Rights, UCLA School of Law, USA

International Observatory of Lawyers at Risk, Europe

World Organization Against Torture (OMCT), in the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, International

Protection International, Mesoamerica

International Platform Against Impunity, Regional

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