In the wake of the tragic assassination of prominent Honduran activist Berta Caceres, U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy called on Saturday for an independent investigation with international experts to ensure the murder does not remain in impunity and a definitive end to the dam project that she risked her life defending.
“Berta was a champion of the rights of indigenous people and of the natural environment. She risked her life for those causes, braving the threats and the fear, knowing that any day could be her last,” Leahy said in a statement.
“Berta represented a larger struggle for justice for all the people of Honduras, and her death can and should be a turning point in that struggle,” he added.
Caceres was shot dead in her home in the early hours of Thursday morning after repeatedly receiving death threats as a result of her activism leading a resistance movement against unwanted hydroelectric projects in the western Honduran community of Rio Blanco.
While Honduran authorities claim they are investigating the murder, police reports initially labeled the attack an armed robbery, despite repeated threats and the fact that her fellow leader Tomas Garcia was killed at the hands of the Honduran military in 2013.
Meanwhile, probes into the circumstances of Caceres’ death so far have focused on COPINH.
Mexican sociologist and activist Gustavo Castro, witness to the murder and injured in the attack, and COPINH member Aureliano Molina, also like Caceres a target of systematic criminalization, are in detention.
Human rights defenders have called for protections for Castro in light of the risk he faces as a witness to the assassination, demanding his safe return to Mexico be guaranteed.
“For decades, government officials have contributed to the conditions that enabled this to occur. Neglect of people’s basic needs. Denial of their basic rights,” said Leahy. “Abuses by the armed forces and police, and by private enterprises that subvert the rule of law, have been tolerated and even encouraged.”
“Some of the same people who ignored or disparaged activists like Berta and her organization, who treated them like criminals, have condemned her assassination – as they should,” he added. “It is a tragic irony.”
Leahy went on to call for an independent investigation in the murder with international experts and for justice to be served to the assassins. He also urged for the Agua Zarca dam project, which has led to many widespread criminalization of social protest in Rio Blanco, to be canceled once and for all.
He also called on Honduras to defend the “legitimate role” of leaders like Caceres and other activists and organizations fighting to defend rights.
“It is the responsibility of government to protect them, not to treat them as legitimate targets of intimidation and arrest,” he said.
The Senator stopped short of pointing to U.S. hypocrisy in Honduras, where complicit support for the 2009 coup and the subsequent rights-abusing regime has helped the Central American country’s human rights situation to deteriorate drastically.
While Caceres’ murder has been widely covered in U.S. mainstream media, including the New York Times, Washington Post, and other outlets, coverage has failed to put the assassination in the post-coup context and completely omitted the key issue of United States failure to condemn the coup.
The State Department, under former Secretary Hillary Clinton, manipulated the crisis in Honduras to contribute to blocking ousted President Manuel Zelaya’s return to power, while all of Latin America rejected the coup and demanded Zelaya’s reinstatement.
Human rights abuses and criminalization of journalists, activists, political opposition, and human rights defenders have increased drastically in wake of the coup.
According to Global Witness, Honduras is the most dangerous place in the world for environmental and land defenders.