Lawsuit: US Link in Murder of Honduran Activist

September 2nd, 2019 - by Nina Lakhani / Guardian UK

Family of Slain Honduran Activist Berta Cáceres Appeal to US Court for Help in Her Murder Trial

Nina Lakhani / Guardian UK

The children of Berta Cáceres want to subpoena bank records to a luxury house purchased by the alleged mastermind of the murder

(August 31, 2019) — The children of murdered Honduran activist Berta Cáceres have applied to a US federal court to subpoena bank records linked to a $1.4m luxury house in Texas purchased by the alleged mastermind of the crime just months after the killing.

Cáceres, 44, a winner of the prestigious Goldman prize for environmental defenders, was shot dead at her home by a hired gunmen on 2 March 2016 after a long battle to stop construction of an internationally financed hydroelectric dam on the Gualcarque river, which the Lenca people consider sacred.

In November 2018, seven men were convicted of carrying out the murder, which the court in Tegucigalpa ruled was ordered by executives of the Agua Zarca dam company Desa because of delays and financial losses linked to protests led by Cáceres.

One of the executives identified in court was David Roberto Castillo Mejía, the CEO of Desa. In March 2018, Castillo was indicted as an “intellectual author”, who is alleged to have coordinated with, and provided funds to, the killers. He vehemently denies any involvement.

The head of Desa has been arrested on suspicion of participating in the death of Berta Caceres.

Castillo, a US-trained former intelligence officer and former government employee, bought the luxury five-bedroom, five-bathroom detached home in Houston in November 2016, thanks to a $400,000 down-payment and $1.04m mortgage from the Hancock Whitney Bank in Mississippi, Louisiana.

The application by Cáceres’ children to subpoena financial details held by the bank has been filed at the southern district court of Mississippi. The application is for foreign legal assistance, and seeks to uncover evidence for use in the Honduran murder trial against Castillo.

Lawyers for the Cáceres family argue that the timing of the 5,034-sq-foot real estate purchase and substantial down payment could provide evidence about the financial motive for the murder. The information sought from the bank could also help identify other, yet unknown individuals, involved in the killing, they claim.

Cáceres’ children, Laura, Bertita and Salvador Zúñiga Cáceres, are plaintiffs in the case, and under Honduran law they are entitled to instruct lawyers to privately prosecute Castillo for allegedly orchestrating their mother’s killing.

“Our clients have the full rights of public prosecutors to present relevant evidence,” said attorney Ralitza Dineva, from Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, which filed the application.

The application is opposed by Castillo’s wife, Tanya Romero-Baca, a US citizen, on the grounds that it is “almost certainly a bad faith fishing expedition”.

“There is no legitimate reason to believe the mortgage file contains evidence relevant to whether David Castillo ‘masterminded’ Ms. Caceres’ murder in Honduras. By contrast, the file surely contains all kinds of information about the Castillos’ assets, business interests, financial holdings, bank accounts, and other sensitive financial information,” wrote Romero-Baca’s lawyers, who did not wish to comment further.

Cáceres’ murder triggered widespread international outrage and demands for justice, in a country where impunity hovers over 95%.

Her supporters welcomed last year’s convictions as the first step towards justice, but, have continued to demand prosecution of the powerful people who ordered and paid for the murder.

Nine months after the verdict, the seven killers are yet to be sentenced.

Castillo’s representatives have lobbied for his release, claiming he is the victim of political persecution.

But on Friday, a dossier that implicates Castillo in a pattern of violence, human rights violations, and corruption to benefit companies with which he was associated was published by a coalition of US rights groups including the Due Process of Law Foundation, International Platform against Impunity and Robert F Kennedy Human Rights.

The report, Violence, Corruption & Impunity in the Honduran Energy Industry, profiles Castillo’s business ventures, and numerous legal cases which suggest he illegally influenced government contracts and enlisted state security forces’ assistance in committing human rights abuses.

Castillo is among 16 people indicted on corruption charges including fraud and using false documents linked to the internationally financed Agua Zarca dam. In that case, known as the Gualcarque fraud, prosecutors allege that Castillo used proxies to create Desa in order to avoid his name appearing as the owner, while negotiating permits and lucrative energy contracts with National Electricity Company (ENEE) – the state energy company he worked for at the time. Castillo denies any wrongdoing.

The alleged proxies testified during the indictment proceedings that they were employees of Castillo at his computer company Digicom, where they worked as a driver and computer technician, respectively. In 2009, Castillo was fined after government auditors found that Digicom sold office supplies and computer accessories to the armed forces at inflated prices. Castillo was also sanctioned for having illegally claimed two state salaries, one from the armed forces, the other from ENEE.

Commenting on the report, Illinois’ Democratic representative Jesús García, who recently travelled to Central America in a delegation led by speaker of the house Nancy Pelosi, said: “This report implicates Honduran energy companies in the 2016 murder of environmental activist Berta Cáceres and documents systemic corruption and violence facing the Honduran people.”

“Congress and international foreign policy leaders must make sure that taxpayer-funded development banks are not financing projects and companies involved in human rights abuses, corruption, or criminal activity.”

Earlier this week, a UN business and human rights delegation to Honduras, said: “All too often, companies and investors benefit from corruption and neglect their responsibility to respect human rights.”

The dam opposed by Cáceres was among scores of lucrative renewable energy projects sanctioned after a 2009 coup d’état, which went ahead without legally required community consultations and environmental impact studies. Nonetheless, since 2009, the price of electricity in Honduras has risen by 164%.

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