Stigmatisation, criminalisation, prosecution and murder of human rights defenders make Honduras one of the most lethal countries for those who defend land and common goods.
On 5 July, the First Chamber of the Court of First Instance with National Territorial Jurisdiction found David Castillo, former president of the company Desarrollos Energéticos SA (DESA), guilty of co-authoring the murder of indigenous leader and social activist Berta Cáceres.
Castillo was also a Honduran military intelligence officer, a graduate of the US military academy at West Point.
At the time, the judges set 3 August as the date for the individualisation of the sentence. More than three months later, the court has still not handed down a sentence, generating a legal uncertainty that deeply worries both the victims and the legal team representing them.
In an activity held in front of the Supreme Court of Justice in Tegucigalpa, the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organisations of Honduras (Copinh) warned about the non-compliance of the First Chamber, which has allowed the procedural time established to issue a sentence to expire.
It also regretted that the Criminal Court has still not resolved the pending appeals to finalise the sentence handed down in 2019 against seven perpetrators of the murder of Berta Cáceres – including former leaders and members of DESA security, former military and active military – and that the Public Prosecutor’s Office has still not presented or prosecuted the masterminds of the crime.
In a communiqué, Copinh assured that it will not remain silent and that it will fight for “every millimetre of justice that we must snatch and demand from the spurious Honduran institutions”, while demanding a “prompt and forceful sentence”.
The call of Copinh and the relatives of the murdered indigenous leader was endorsed by the Mission of Qualified Observation in the Berta Cáceres Case. Its members deplored the lack of initiative on the part of the institutions that should guarantee justice to pursue and prosecute the key actors of the criminal structure that perpetrated the crime.
In this regard, the sentence against Castillo represents the continuity of the commitment to continue the process to achieve comprehensive justice for Berta Cáceres.
“The ruling should prompt a due diligence investigation of all the perpetrators of this crime, so that they are duly brought to justice. This legal uncertainty puts at risk the due process and the guarantees of the victims to dignified reparation and non-repetition, leaving them in a situation of vulnerability and without access to full justice,” said the Mission.
Freedom for Guapinol
Even more complex is the situation of the eight water and life defenders of Guapinol, who have been in pre-trial detention for more than two years, accused of the crimes of aggravated arson and unjust deprivation of liberty.
Despite several attempts by their defenders to obtain a review of precautionary measures, the judges have systematically denied this possibility, and the eight defenders remain in prison, seven in the town of Olanchito and one in La Ceiba.
In the past years, at least 32 people have been prosecuted for defending the territory and the rivers that flow down from the “Montaña de Botaderos” National Park, whose core zone is threatened by the mining company Inversiones Los Pinares (NE Holdings Inc and NE Holdings Subsidiary Inc), formerly EMCO Mining Company.
In this area there are around 34 water sources that supply cities and communities. The Guapinol and San Pedro rivers in particular are suffering the main impacts. The communities and populations of the area were never consulted before concessions were granted to the mining company.
The holding companies that manage Inversiones Los Pinares are controlled by Lenir Pérez Solís, already involved in other mining conflicts in the past, and Ana Facussé Madrid, daughter of the notorious palm landowner Miguel Facussé Barjum. Facussé’s name has been linked in the past to the serious agrarian conflict in Bajo Aguán, where dozens of organised peasants lost their lives, and to the territorial dispossession in the Zacate Grande peninsula.
Recently, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention determined that the Guapinol defenders “are being arbitrarily detained” and recommended that the Honduran state “release them without delay”. The state never responded and ignored the recommendations.
To make matters worse, with the clear intention of punishing the unjustly and illegally imprisoned defenders, the Public Prosecutor’s Office requested and obtained an extension of the pre-trial detention for another year.
“The Honduran state lives in a permanent structural cynicism: on the one hand it proclaims the defence of human rights and on the other hand it has a practice contrary to these same rights”, said Joaquín Mejía, researcher at Equipo de Reflexión, Investigación y Comunicación (ERIC), during the virtual forum ‘Compromisos del Estado hondureño ante los mecanismos de la ONU’ (Commitments of the Honduran state before UN mechanisms).
Does Honduras defend human rights?
Paradoxically, this year Honduras announced its candidacy for membership of the UN Human Rights Council, in the framework of the 76th General Assembly. More than 50 national and international organisations wrote to member states entitled to vote, urging them to leave the ballot paper blank when voting for Honduras, as this country “does not have the legitimacy to occupy this seat”.
Several international reports, including “Last Line of Defence” recently published by Global Witness, point to Honduras as one of the most dangerous places in the world for human rights defenders, especially those defending land and the commons.
The use and abuse of the justice system and the collusion of the state with extractivist companies are two of the elements that characterise the systematic violation of human rights in Honduras.
“The state has carried out institutional and regulatory reforms to impose an economic model that focuses on the unconsulted exploitation of the commons, which generates numerous conflicts with serious consequences for human rights. In the face of this, the state is systematically and unconditionally aligned with the companies that are imposing this model. The impacts are disastrous and the case of the Guapinol defenders is a clear example of this”, explained Mejía.
According to Global Witness, in 2020 at least 129 Garifuna and indigenous people were attacked for opposing extractive projects and 153 defenders have been killed in the last decade. In addition, the Centre for Information on Business and Human Rights (CIEDH) points to Honduras as the country with the most judicial harassment against human rights defenders.
“There is a very clear pattern. First of all, the enemy is created in the collective imagination, then defenders are stigmatised, threatened and harassed, and police, military and private security guards from the companies repress them. Finally comes the misuse of criminal law to criminalise and prosecute them by automatically placing them in pre-trial detention. The last step can be physical elimination, as has happened to Berta Cáceres, Margarita Murillo, Jeannette Kawas, the Garifuna and Tolupan comrades, and many others,” said the ERIC researcher.
In Honduras, then, there is a selective judicial system that acts belatedly and without offering effective responses when it comes to human rights violations, and that becomes surprisingly fast and effective when it comes to favouring the interests of actors linked to political, economic and business power, criminalising people who defend territories.
Criminalisation of protest
Gilda Rivera, director of the Women’s Rights Centre (CDM) and member of the Coalition against Impunity in Honduras, recalled that extractive concessions continue to be approved in the country without complying with a series of requirements, including free, prior and informed consultation with the communities that will be affected by these projects.
On 7 October, the National Congress approved, in an expeditious manner, reforms to the penal code, which were strongly questioned both by the opposition parliamentary forces and by broad sectors of Honduran society.
Among other modifications that will make the fight against corruption and impunity even more difficult, the ruling party and its allies toughened the penalties and broadened the definition of the crime of usurpation. The criminal offence of usurpation has been systematically used by governments and other institutions following the coup (2009) to criminalise and prosecute social and territorial protest.
“It is a clear demonstration of the instrumentalisation of criminal law to attack defenders. The national territory is crossed by conflicts, in which the population and communities are being criminalised, stigmatised, disqualified and repressed with total impunity”, Rivera said during the virtual forum.
According to the National Network of Women Human Rights Defenders in Honduras, since the murder of Berta Cáceres (2016) to date, at least 8 women human rights defenders have been murdered, there have been 35 assassination attempts, 2267 attacks, 92 cases of criminalisation and prosecution, 29 illegal and arbitrary detentions. Of all these attacks, 48% have been perpetrated against women defenders of land and territories, and 159 attacks have been perpetrated by state entities and private security guards.
The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Honduras also expressed strong concern over the approved reforms which, among other things, “modify the criminal offence of usurpation, increasing its penalty, extending it to public spaces and facilitating evictions, thus opening up the possibility of applying the new provisions not only to peasant organisations, but also to people exercising their rights to peaceful assembly, expression and demonstration”.
“Extractivism directly affects people. As Copinh we reject these reforms to the penal code because they aim to further deepen the criminalisation, violence and repression of those who defend the territories”, said Laura Zúniga Cáceres, member of Copinh and daughter of Berta Cáceres.
Signs of hope
In the midst of so many problems, the struggle in defence of human rights and the criminalised people does not cease.
On 17 September, after a long struggle and 19 months of pre-trial detention in a maximum security prison, political prisoners Edwin Espinal and Raúl Álvarez were acquitted of all the crimes they had been charged with. Three months earlier, the other political prisoner, Rommel Herrera Portillo, was released after more than two years of unjust imprisonment. Likewise, indigenous leaders and defenders Víctor Vásquez and José Santos Vigil have just been granted alternative measures to prison so that they can defend themselves in freedom.
Small but important signs. Popular victories that mark the need to continue organising and articulating efforts and actions, to make alliances at national and international level, promoting and encouraging processes of collective demands.