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Honduran Human Rights Defender Celebrates a Step toward Vindication
By Jovanna Garcia Soto
February 14th, 2014
Human rights activists enjoyed a victory this week when charges against an indigenous community leader were permanently dismissed.
Berta Cáceres, General Coordinator of Grassroots International’s ally organization, the Civic Council of Grassroots and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), has been facing serious charges as a result of her courageous organizing with indigenous Lenca communities in resistance to megaprojects that threaten their territories and way of life. Such charges are part of the overall trend of criminalization of social movement leaders in Honduras.
Although Berta and COPINH have been engaged in nonviolent resistance, elements of the army allegedly claimed to have found a gun in the car that she was driving in May 2013. Berta was charged with "Illegal Possession of Firearms in Prejudice of Homeland Security of the State Honduras.” After months of stellar legal defense work, the First Court of Letters of Santa Barbara, Honduras dismissed this case on February 11, 2014.
This ruling terminates the criminal proceeding against Berta, as well as the precautionary restrictions which prevented her from leaving the country and required her to report to the court every week. The decision of the Court has been the result of a process of political and legal struggle at national and international level.
According to COPINH, the significance of the dismissal of charges extends far beyond Berta’s case. The ruling by the State of Honduras recognizes the political persecution against Berta, and by implication acknowledges the criminalization of human rights defenders and its obligation to respect international treaties, including indigenous peoples’ rights to defend their culture and territories.
The struggle to protect human rights defenders in Honduras is at a critical moment. Massive militarization around the country and increased political pressure are serving to increase the criminalization of social movements and jeopardize the lives of those defending resources, territory and human rights.
While this victory is significant, another case against Berta and other two leaders of COPINH is still pending. Berta Cáceres, Tomás Gómez and Aureliano Molina were charged with theft, coercion and damage to the company Desarrollos Energéticos (DESA), by the Public Prosecutor and the company itself. Although the Appeals Court of Comayagua provisionally revoked the court decision that sentenced Berta to prison and alternative measures for Molina and Gomez, the final decision is still pending.
DESA is one of the companies pushing the Agua Zarca hydroelectric dam project, which is being built in violation of International Labor Organization’s Convention 169, and was rejected by the Lenca people of Rio Blanco, organized by COPINH. The ILO Convention 169 established the right to Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC), wherein governments must provide indigenous peoples with advance information about any proposed project on their territories. Such projects can only move forward with consent from the indigenous communities, which in this case did not occur.
The Lenca people have been bravely resisting the construction of Agua Zarca dam in their territory for almost a year. Resistance has been met with attacks, judicial lynching and even deaths of key leaders. Even in the face of imminent threats, the Lenca continue to demand the end of the Agua Zarca project which would privatize the Gualcarque River, invading the Lenca territory and violating their rights.
Grassroots International, COPINH and our partner Black Fraternal Organization of Honduras (OFRANEH) are grateful to all the people that have demonstrated incredible solidarity with the persecuted leaders. The legal struggle continues for a permanent dismissal of the cases against Berta, Tomás, and Aureliano, who have been the object of repression and are still facing threats to their lives and indictments for their nonviolent actions to defend indigenous territories in Honduras. We are committed to continuing to accompany COPINH through this process.