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Honduras: Historic Murder Conviction in Berta Caceres Case Compels State to Fight Impunity

Summary and analysis of the conviction of Roberto David Castillo Mejia issued by Chamber 1 of the Tribunal with National Territorial Jurisdiction on Monday, July 5, 2021 in Tegucigalpa, Honduras.

Arsenia Álvarez, 56, a native of the Garífuna community of Sambo Creek, celebrates the outcome of the trial against David Castillo, who was found guilty of the murder of Berta Cáceres. Tegucigalpa, July 5, 2021. Photo: Martín Cálix.

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See original text by the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the World Organization Against Torture (OMCT) in the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, members of the Qualified Observation Mission in the Berta Cáceres Case, here:

July 9, 2021

This historic ruling takes on even greater importance because it highlights the value of the defence of nature and the rights of indigenous peoples and rural communities. It is a landmark ruling that exposes through the courts the responsibility of companies, not only of their devastating role in the destruction of vital resources, but also in the persecution and elimination of people and organisations that oppose their destructive greed. The ruling highlights the strength of unity and struggle in the demand for truth and justice; a struggle that had as great protagonists the courage and dignity of her family, of COPINH, of all the people who gave themselves to this cause of humanity. I join in the joy that Berta vindicated, the joy of victories. This is a victory with the taste of a feat, because achieving truth and justice in the courts that have historically favoured the crimes of power is a feat. This victory is transcendental, but it does not mean the end of the road in the fight against impunity for the assassination of our comrade Berta", said Reynaldo Villalba, Vice President of FIDH and President of CAJAR - Colombia.

"More than five years after the murder of human rights defender Berta Cáceres, the conviction of Roberto David Castillo Mejía as co-perpetrator of the crime must serve as a precedent for achieving justice for all defenders of territory, the environment and indigenous rights who have been murdered in Honduras, and for declaring a policy of zero tolerance towards violence against those who defend human rights," said Gerald Staberock, OMCT Secretary General.

Monday, July 5, 2021 marked a conclusive step towards justice for indigenous, territorial and environmental rights defender Berta Cáceres, who was assassinated on March 2, 2016 in Honduras. Roberto David Castillo Mejía, military intelligence officer and former general manager and president of the Desarrollos Energéticos (DESA) hydroelectric company was convicted as a co-perpetrator of the crime against the Lenca leader. The court ruled that the motive for the murder was to put an end to the opposition to the nationally and internationally financed Agua Zarca hydroelectric project by the indigenous communities of Río Blanco, which Berta Cáceres led as coordinator of the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organisations of Honduras (COPINH).

The ruling came after nearly 50 days of hearings in the trial which began on April 6, 2021. During the course of the trial, which was broadcast live through the judiciary’s social media channels due to the COVID pandemic, more than 60 pieces of evidence were presented, mostly by the Public Prosecutor’s Office and the Private Prosecutors representing Berta Cáceres’ family. The key evidence was telecommunications data extracted from the phones of those already convicted in 2018 for the murder, including employees and former employees of DESA, an active military officer and four hitmen, as well as the phone of Daniel Atala, financial director of the DESA company and the phones of Berta Cáceres.

In its ruling, the Court cited both the Public Prosecutor’s Office and Defence experts, who presented a logical coherence of the chats linking Castillo to the planning and execution of the plan to assassinate Berta Cáceres. The WhatsApp chats showed that Castillo coordinated with former DESA security manager Douglas Bustillo, convicted of the murder in 2018, to shut down opposition to the project. Bustillo then communicated with military comrades to coordinate a hit squad to plan and ultimately execute the murder.

Meanwhile, the Court ruled that Castillo communicated with Cáceres to obtain information, and not because of a friendship, as the Defence had alleged. This intelligence information, which included tracking Cáceres’ movements, was then shared with DESA executives, through the WhatsApp chat "Seguridad PHAZ" (Proyecto Hidroeléctrico Agua Zarca), in which DESA executives and managers participated. The chats between this group, and in an audio between Castillo and Jacobo Atala, a company director who was not in the group chat, also took place in the hours, days and weeks after the murder. None of the Atala Zablah family directors of the DESA hydroelectric company, who were part of this group chat, have been prosecuted for the murder but the guilty verdict clearly establishes that Castillo did not act alone, but was part of a coordinated group.

The court ruled that the chronological evidence linking Castillo to the crime is clear, beginning in October 2015, when DESA’s social and environmental manager, the already convicted Sergio Rodríguez, sent a message to the PHAZ Security Group chat room indicating that actions targeting Berta Cáceres should be taken to end organised resistance to the dam project.

Later, the evidence shows Castillo’s communications with Bustillo leading up to the time of the foiled assassination attempt a month before the assassination - what the chats revealed as an "aborted mission" - as well as in the weeks and days before March 2 to secure the "logistics" to carry out the assassination. The court found that there was no other logical explanation for the communications between Bustillo and the assassins hired to carry out the crime as well as the chats between Castillo and Bustillo who did not have a working relationship at the time of the murder.

Although the defence presented several hypotheses about other threats Berta Cáceres had received that they believed were the motive for the murder — including threats from a mining and hydroelectric company, an intimate relationship, and even drug trafficking — none of these were fully developed, much less proven at trial. For Cáceres’ family, and civil society, these were ways in which the defence attempted to continue to defame Berta Cáceres and divert attention from the real motive during the three-month trial, often using the corporate media.

It is important to note that during the course of the trial, DESA’s financial director, Daniel Atala Midence, was called to testify about the murder, but at the last moment, he invoked his constitutional right not to testify against himself given the pending investigation against him for the crime. The Public Prosecutor’s Office confirmed this situation and, after the verdict was issued, assured it will continue with its investigations into the intellectual authors of the crime. The conclusive evidence used in the trial has been in the hands of the Honduran State for four years, but no further arrests have been made since that of David Castillo on March 2, 2018.

The court ruled that David Castillo was guilty of being a co-perpetrator, part of a group that collectively carried out the murder, each with his role, and the conviction clearly opens the door to further prosecutions of the others who knew about and consented to the murder. The court indicated that a hearing to discuss the sentence will be held on August 3, 2021, during which time the Private Prosecution and the Public Prosecutor’s Office will present the aggravating factors of the crime. After that hearing, a written sentence will be issued and the defence will present its appeal. Castillo is expected to face a 20 to 25 year sentence, having already spent more than three years in prison.

The day after the conviction, the Dutch Development Bank FMO, which Berta Cáceres asked to divest from the Agua Zarca project before her murder, issued a statement acknowledging that they had financed a company whose director had been convicted of a murder. In 2019, Berta Cáceres’ family filed a lawsuit against the bank in the Netherlands for its involvement in the murder, which is still open. In May 2021, during the trial against David Castillo, FMO announced that it was ending negotiations for a loan with the Honduran bank FICOHSA, which Berta Cáceres also denounced for its involvement in the project.

David Castillo, in his final statement to the court, thanked the Honduran Council of Private Enterprise (COHEP) and the Honduran Association of Small Energy Producers for providing the expert witnesses, consultants and translators used for his defence during the trial. COHEP is the largest business organisation in Honduras, and one of three private organisations in the country that nominate candidates to the Honduran Supreme Court, and also sits on the board of directors of the National Electric Energy Company (ENEE), the Honduran government-owned and operated electricity company. They have not yet issued a public statement on the verdict.

In addition to the murder trial, David Castillo is now facing trial for acts of corruption in connection with the granting of the operating license for the Agua Zarca dam project and for acts of fraud in the negotiation of the power purchase agreement between DESA and ENEE. The illegal actions of the hydroelectric company since its inception have been made clear through criminal proceedings in Honduras and should serve as a lesson to stop the violence perpetuated against indigenous and peasant communities defending their territorial rights in the face of extractive projects without consent.

The role of the victims - the family of Berta Cáceres, the Lenca communities of Río Blanco and COPINH - in seeking justice has been essential in taking this conclusive step. Their continued participation is vital to ensure truth, justice and dignified reparations for the cases related to the Berta Cáceres Cause and should be a lesson in victim-centered justice in Honduras to ensure steps towards non-repetition.

As a member of the Expert Observation Mission that has observed the entirety of the trial against David Castillo, the Observatory reiterates its call for the Honduran State to clarify all the wrongdoings denounced in the Berta Cáceres Case, including those committed by the executive structure of the company and public officials in the period before and after the assassination.

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