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Seven Convicted in Killing of Prominent Honduran Environmentalist

Seven Convicted in Killing of Prominent Honduran Environmentalist

By Elisabeth Malkin Nov. 29, 2018

MEXICO CITY — A Honduran court on Thursday found seven men guilty of murder in the 2016 assassination of an indigenous environmental leader whose opposition to a dam project brought her an international prominence that still failed to protect her life.

The verdict, delivered by a panel of judges after a six-week trial in the Honduran capital, Tegucigalpa, ended a proceeding bitterly denounced by the family of the environmentalist, Berta Cáceres, and the organization that she led.

They criticized the prosecution for focusing its efforts on those believed to have carried out the crime, and disregarding evidence that could have implicated powerful business leaders in its planning.

“This is undoubtedly a first step towards justice,” said Marcia Aguiluz Soto, the director for Central America and Mexico at the Center for Justice and International Law, a human rights group that has worked closely with the family. “But of course there are other people who are the ones who paid for the assassination of Berta Cáceres and they should be here.”

The judges convicted two former executives of Desarrollos Energéticos, or Desa, the company with the concession to build the 21-megawatt dam, a project that was eventually abandoned after Ms. Cáceres’s killing.

Ms. Cáceres, 44, was shot six times by two gunmen in March 2016 in the small town of La Esperanza, where she had led indigenous opposition to the dam, which was planned for the Gualcarque River in western Honduras. The Lenca people consider the river to be sacred and said the dam would jeopardize their water resources.

Among those convicted were Sergio Rodríguez Orellana, Desa’s director of environmental and social development, and Douglas Bustillo, a retired Honduran Army lieutenant who had worked as the company’s security chief but left before Ms. Cáceres was killed.

Five others, including Mariano Diaz, a Honduran Army major, were also convicted. Another defendant, the brother of one of the accused, was acquitted.

Desa’s general manager, David Castillo, who was arrested in March, will be tried separately. The company has denied any involvement in ordering the killing and said that Mr. Castillo and Mr. Rodríguez, the two executives working for Desa at the time of the killing, had been wrongly accused.

“This is a completely political verdict,” said Robert Amsterdam, a lawyer for Desa. “The Honduran government has given into the pressure of the European Union and the U.S. State Department and issued a political ruling.”

The company said it had consulted with community groups about the dam project, but Ms. Cáceres’s organization, the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras, known as Copinh, vigorously opposed the dam.

Ms. Caceres’s fight won her the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize in 2015. Her killing just a few months later became emblematic ofthe threats faced by environmental activists in Latin America.

In 2016, according to the organization Global Witness, 14 environmental activists were killed in reprisal for their work in Honduras.

International organizations have expressed skepticism that the prosecution will reach up to those who ordered the murder.

“Justice for victims will be effective and comprehensive when all the material and intellectual authors of the crime are brought to justice and held accountable,” the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights’ office in Honduras and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights said in a joint statement on Wednesday.