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Weekly Report - 23 June 2016 (WR-16-24)

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HONDURAS: Government denies that military killed Cáceres

The Honduran defence minister, Samuel Reyes, has rejected as “totally false” allegations by the Guardian, a British newspaper, that the military was responsible for the assassination of the award-winning local environmental and indigenous rights activist Berta Cáceres.

In a press conference on 22 June, a day after the Guardian ran its controversial story, which it said was based on testimony from an ex-soldier, Reyes said that the information published “contains elements that apparently seek to damage the image of the government of Honduras and the armed forces”. Reyes sought to rebut the story, citing several details as false and/or factually incorrect, adding that it was “full of incongruities”.

In its 21 June story the Guardian alleged that two US-trained special elite military units had been given a list of social and environmental activists targeted for “elimination”, including Cáceres, who was shot dead in her bed in March. Among those arrested were active and former members of the Honduran military with ties to Desarrollos Energéticos SA (Desa), the firm responsible for building the Agua Zarca dam, as well as the manager for social and environmental issues at Desa. Cáceres had led a long campaign against the dam.

The alleged whistleblower is said to be a 20-year old former first sergeant who, along with others including his 24-year-old unit commander, deserted rather than comply with the hit list. He and others are on the run in neighbouring countries and in fear of their lives. “If I went home, they’d kill me. Ten of my former colleagues are missing. I’m 100% certain that Berta Cáceres was killed by the army,” the alleged witness is reported as saying.

The story, which the daily insisted it had corroborated with multiple sources, went on to list in gory detail evidence of a torture room close to a military installation, while the whistleblower also said he had been present at the surreptitious disposal of human remains in the middle of the night. In response to the report, Cáceres’s daughter, Bertita Zúñiga, stated, “This shows us that death squads are operating in the armed forces, which are being used to get rid of people opposing government plans. It shows us that human rights violations are state policy in Honduras.”

With concerns escalating even before Cáceres’s death about the use of the US$200m in US military and police aid for Honduras since 2010, US Congressional Representative Hank Johnson last week introduced to the lower house the ‘Berta Cáceres Human Rights Act in Honduras’, which would suspend US security assistance pending the cessation of human-rights violations by security forces. “We provide millions of dollars in security assistance to Honduras but these same forces have been found to attack and kill environmental, labour and human rights activists like Cáceres without any effective response from the authorities,” the Guardian reported Johnson as saying.

Reyes stoutly rejected the “insinuation that there is a State policy against citizens and that the human rights defender and environmentalist was one of the objectives”. He added that the army had no register of the supposed disappearance of 10 soldiers and officials that could be linked to the death of Cáceres, or any denunciations by family members of missing military loved ones. He was clear that the Honduran armed forces, through the foreign ministry, would request “rectification” of the article by the Guardian.

  • Honduran military

This is not the first time the Guardian has run articles linking US-trained Honduran security forces to deadly attacks on local activists. In a 7 January story entitled, ‘Honduras and dirty war fuelled by the west’s drive for clean energy, the daily suggested that Honduran forces were “implicated in the murder, disappearance and intimidation of peasant farmers involved in land disputes with local palm oil magnates”. This latest story, according to Lauren Carasik, director of the International Human Rights Clinic at Western New England University, is “disturbing smoking gun evidence”.