Quest for Justice for Berta takes a dramatic new turn

It was a day of expectation, emotion and drama. The long awaited first day of the trial of 8 men charged with involvement in the murder of iconic indigenous rights and environment defender Berta Cáceres.

The case has attracted considerable attention, in part because Berta was so well known and the recipient of a prestigious Goldman Environmental prize for her efforts to oppose a controversial hydroelectric dam and its impact on the territory and rights of marginalized Indigenous communities.

Police in riot gear were ominously present as I arrived at the court house in my yellow Amnesty vest, making visible to all that our global movement of 7 million supporters will be observing the trial in the hope of ensuring impartial justice, while respecting the independence of the Honduran judiciary.

As the 9 AM start time approachs, the court room fills. Many are anxious to see justice upheld in this emblematic case with far reaching consequences for all who defend human rights in Honduras. It is lost on no one that failure to bring to account all those behind the killing of Berta will be a green light for more assassinations in a country already renowned as one of the most dangerous in the world for those who defend land, indigenous territory and the environment.  

I am moved to see tiny but indomitable Doa Pascualita (below left), a Lenca elder I met during a visit to Berta’s organization, the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), last November. Doa Pascualita is accompanied by another veritable giant: Lolita Chávez (below centre), a brave defender from Guatemala whose life has been threatened too as she speaks up for Indigenous rights and the environment on which they depend.

With minutes to go, representatives of many Embassies arrive, with Canada among them. Chairs have to be added to the gallery to accommodate them. It’s a heartening sign of international concern and support for the victims. A crowd of journalists crams to the front of the gallery, another heartening sign of interest in justice.

Yet half an hour after the landmark trial should have begun, a disquieting turn of events. Media are asked to leave and an announcement made that the court will now hear evidentiary proceedings in another totally unrelated case, spreading disbelief and confusion through the gallery. It is the latest example of repeated delays on the part of Honduran authorities throughout the past 30 months since Berta was gunned down in her home on March 2, 2016.

How does this feel to Berta’s family and members of COPINH like Doa Pasqualita?

It takes more than two hours for the unrelated hearing to finish and then the court room is bristling with expectation again as Berta’s daughters Bertha Isabel and Laura enter the court room, along with their lawyers.

The eight men accused of the 2016 murder are brought in. They include men who worked with Desarrollos Enérgeticos S.A. (DESA), the company building the dam that Berta had campaigned to stop, and others with ties to the military.

And then a dramatic announcement! The presiding judge announces that lawyers for Berta’s family and COPINH have filed a legal application requesting that she and the other two judges hearing the case be disqualified and replaced, due to concerns that they lack impartiality and have committed abuses of authority. The trial is suspended until there is a ruling on this appeal for new judges.

At a press conference, Bertha Isabel Zuniga (above), elected to the coordination of COPINH following the murder of her mother, explained why they felt they had no choice but to take this action. “We want – and have demanded – justice,” she said. “We have done everything possible, more than necessary as victims. But the State has failed to ensure guarantees of due process. The three judge panel responsible for this case has failed to guarantee our rights as victims and even the rights of the accused by allowing the Public Prosecutor to conceal information, and as a consequence, the truth.” 

Amnesty International has repeatedly expressed concern about a deeply flawed investigation into the murder and violations of due process that undermine the quest for truth and justice for all those behind the killing, including those who planned it and gave the orders. The family has repeatedly highlighted the difficulties they have faced in getting access to the case files and in participating in the investigation. 

Last week, lawyers for Berta’s family filed four injunctions. One of the injunctions disputes decisions on the part of the judges to reject experts, witnesses and evidence linking the murder to a wider criminal conspiracy.

“We need justice in line with international standards,” Bertha Isabel told me after we left the court house. “We expect a trial that respects minimal guarantees for the victims and a verdict that cannot afterwards be overturned because of flaws of due process.”

It’s a critical moment, says Bertha Isabel, and also an ever more dangerous one for those who seek to expose the truth about everyone behind the killing of her mother.

She and other members of COPINH report troubling security incidents and a campaign of false accusations against them that undermines both their legitimate human rights work and their safety.

International solidarity remains vital.

More than 59,000 supporters in Canada and many more around the world have raised their voices to call for Justice for Berta, together with guarantees of protection for her family, organization and the lawyers who represent them. Those appeals have commanded attention.

But our voices are needed again now, to keep up the pressure and tell Honduran authorities the world is indeed still watching!

1. Sign our online action Justice for Berta >>> You can find the action here.

2. Read our Activism Blog for more ways you can take action and show your solidarity >>> You can find the Activism blog here.

3. Follow news and updates from COPINH >>> You can find them here.


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