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Honduras: First Week of David Castillo trial for murder of Berta Cáceres

Backgrounder and First Week of David Castillo Trial for Murder of Berta Cáceres in Honduras

April 23, 2021

For more information, please see the preliminary reports of the Expert Observation Mission here.

After more than three years of delays in preliminary hearings, the trial against former military intelligence officer David Castillo for the murder of Berta Cáceres finally began in Honduras on Tuesday, April 6. The trial follows a 2018 trial which led to the conviction of seven men for the murder of the Lenca leader on March 2, 2016. Among those convicted were four hitmen, an employee and a former employee of the Desarrollos Energéticos S.A. (DESA) hydroelectric company, and a Major active in the Honduran armed forces. At the time of the murder, Berta, and the Indigenous community of Rio Blanco, organized in the Civic Council of Indigenous and Popular Organizations of Honduras (COPINH) - an organization that Berta co-founded and led at the time of her murder - were fighting to reclaim their ancestral territorial rights and to stop DESA’s "Agua Zarca" project.

Berta Zúniga Cáceres
Berta Zúniga Cáceres, coordinator of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organisations in Honduras (Copinh), holds two candles during a ceremony in memory of her mother Berta Cáceres, in front of the Supreme Court of Justice. Berta Cáceres was assassinated by hired killers in March 2016. Tegucigalpa, 5 April 2021. Photo: Martín Cálix / Contracorriente.

David Castillo was allegedly one of the DESA Executives who coordinated with the convicted murderers to carry out the crime. In the previous sentence, the court affirmed that more than one DESA Executive knew about and consented to Berta's murder, but to date, Castillo, who served as General Manager and President of the company's Board of Directors at the time of the crime, is the only one facing prosecution.

On the first day of the trial against David Castillo, Berta's family and COPINH held a press conference. In it, they stated, "The trial against David Castillo should only be the beginning of a legal process to judge all of those responsible for the crime." They argue that David Castillo is not the mastermind of the crime, but rather that he played a subordinate role to other DESA executives in carrying out the murder.

They ended by calling on the national and international community to continue strengthening alliances for the struggle for an independent justice system in Honduras and "the Berta Cáceres Case to be a precedent of truth and reparation for the people."

Hours later, as the hearing was about to start, the Tribunal denied Laura Zúniga, the youngest daughter of Berta Cáceres, entrance into the courtroom. The judges stated that she could listen to the proceedings virtually and that they were exercising control over the courtroom due to the COVID-19 health emergency. Given the violation of her right to effective participation and access to justice as a family member and also as a victim and private prosecution, the following day, Laura Zúniga addressed the Court in a letter. In it, she requested that the family’s right to participate as victims in the judicial process be guaranteed and that at least one member of the family be able to enter the courtroom while respecting biosecurity protocols.

"We understand that we are in the midst of a pandemic that has created real limitations for the development of safe hearings. But this situation must not serve to deepen the suffering of the victims and deny our place in a process that must be reparative of the loss that this vile crime has caused us."

In the same vein, the Court also prohibited national and international observers from entering the courtroom, citing a decision made at an earlier hearing due to pandemic-related biosecurity protocols. The UNHCHR regretted the decision, which "limits the effective exercise of oversight and technical assistance to national institutions," which is part of its mandate. The Expert Observation Mission and the National Human Rights Commission (CONADEH) were also restricted entry despite having monitored the pre-trial hearings in person. The trial was broadcast through the Judiciary's social media pages with audio and visuals that were at times difficult to hear and understand.

It’s important to note that during the 2018 trial, the victims - Berta's daughters, son and mother - were barred from participating as private prosecution. Meanwhile, to date, COPINH has also been excluded from participating in the "Fraud on the Gualcarque" case, a separate but related legal proceeding that examines the root causes of the motives for Berta's murder, in which David Castillo is also on trial along with other current and former state functionaries. The Special Prosecution Unit Against Corruption and Impunity (UFECIC) alleges that Castillo was an employee of the National Electric Energy Company (ENEE) and at the same time the de facto president of DESA using privileged information to obtain the necessary permits for DESA to operate the hydroelectric project and later negotiate a fraudulent Power Purchase Agreement between DESA and the State. Due to legal actions taken by the defence, this case is paralysed although it should go to trial in the first half of this year. The failure to allow victims to participate is deeply troubling and restricts their access to the truth and their right to reparative justice and non-repetition.

On the first day of David Castillo's trial for the murder of Berta Cáceres, his defence team requested the hearing to be suspended, arguing that legal actions they had filed have not yet been definitively resolved by the corresponding higher courts. They also alleged that expert witnesses they had proposed for trial had not been able to finish their reports in time for various reasons. The Court ruled against the suspension of the hearing, reasoning that it had not received instructions from either the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court of Justice or the Court of Appeals to suspend the trial while at the same time, noted that the defence has had the information necessary to complete the expert reports for a sufficient amount of time.

On the second day, during the motions, or incidents, phase, the Public Prosecutor's Office and the private attorneys representing the family proposed new evidences and made clarifications they considered relevant to the trial. According to the evidence already proposed by the Public Prosecutor's Office, Castillo played a key role in coordinating the assassination plan - and the surveillance, harassment and intimidation actions that preceded it - with the now-convicted former DESA security manager, Douglas Bustillo. New evidence proposed by the private prosecution on the second day of the trial points to alleged coordination between Castillo and DESA's Chief Financial Officer, Daniel Atala Midence, to secure payments for the hit squad to carry out the assassination.

When it was the defence team’s turn to participate, they stated that they had filed a motion to recuse the Tribunal for allegedly having a manifest enmity with David Castillo. This led to the immediate suspension of the hearing as the Court of Appeals is responsible for resolving the motion. According to COPINH, this is the fourth recusal filed by the defence against the Tribunal.

Days later, the Court of Appeals dismissed the recusal and the defence team’s subsequent request to reconsider the decision and the trial is expected to start up again in the next few days. Once it has resumed, the Court will issue a final ruling on what evidence will be used during the trial.

As part of the Expert Observation Mission, we call for an end to the repeated delays in the case, given they impede access to justice and the effective right to truth for the victims. The State of Honduras must guarantee the application of international standards and national norms to reach truth, comprehensive justice and reparation in a case of global interest. The publicity of the trial, as well as right of Berta Cáceres’s family to participate as victims, are fundamental.

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