On Monday, the high-profile trial of eight men accused of murdering indigenous and environmental rights activist Berta Cáceres was supposed to begin. Cáceres was murdered two-and-a-half years ago after protesting the construction of the Agua Zarca Dam, and the trial could provide key insight into corruption and criminality in Honduras, a country already plagued by violence.
But instead, proceedings quickly devolved into a farce when the three presiding judges were accused of abuse of authority, and the lawyers representing Cáceres’ family asked that they be recused and replaced.
The Guardian reported that Cáceres’ family lawyers had noted a series of decisions demonstrating bias. These included refusing to reprimand the public prosecutors for not sharing evidence with the family’s legal team — despite being ordered to — and rejecting testimony that pointed to a wider criminal conspiracy to kill Berta Cáceres. The hearing was also pushed back three hours by the judges to allow for a an unrelated drug case to proceed.
Berta Cáceres trial: outside and inside the court where anyone standing will be thrown out once proceedings start. Courtroom way too small for such a big case pic.twitter.com/70IsuLeCsV
— Nina Lakhani (@ninalakhani) September 17, 2018
As of now, the trial has been suspended indefinitely until the Honduran judiciary resolves five injuctions filed against the three judges and resolves their recusal. According to local activists, it could potentially take years for the trial to be resumed.
Berta Cáceres had repeatedly reported death threats prior to being gunned down in 2016, as she fought against the Agua Zarca Dam project which would have cut off essential supplies from indigenous communities.
Honduran authorities eventually arrested nine people in relation to the murder — including three former soldiers and three employees of Desarrollos Energéticos SA (DESA), the company building the Agua Zarca Dam. The final DESA employee, arrested in March, served as the executive director of DESA during Cáceres’ murder.
The suspects’ backgrounds, coupled with the friendly ties DESA enjoys with members of the Honduran political elite, raises the possibility that Cáceres’ murder was part of a wider conspiracy. This is only exacerbated by high-profile lapses in the cases’ prosecution, like Cáceres’ case file getting stolen soon after the murder, or the repeated refusal of Honduran prosecutors to share evidence with Cáceres’ family’s legal team.
In 2017 a report from an independent group of experts concluded that Cáceres’ murder was organized by senior executives at DESA, using elements of the state security forces which had acted “in partnership” with the company. The report states that the evidence is “conclusive regarding the participation of numerous state agents, high-ranking executives and employees of DESA in the planning, execution and cover-up of the assassination.” DESA has vehemently denied these allegations.
Cáceres has not been the only environmental activist targeted either. According to a July report from Global Witness more than 200 environmental and indigenous activists were killed across the world last year for standing up to big business interests like large-scale agriculture and poaching. More than half of the murders occurred in Latin America.