By John Walsh
Since January 13th, the trial of 8 community activists and water protectors from Guapinol, Honduras has been under way in fits and starts in a courtroom in the city of Tocoa, where I was present as an observer for two weeks. Every morning before a hearing, the 8 men are bused in from prison - they have been jailed for over two years awaiting trial - and every evening after court they are bused back. Outside the fence around the palacio judicial, their families, neighbors, and fellow activists have maintained an around-the-clock camp and vigil. When the bus goes by, people cheer, wave, and reach out to touch. Families take food inside for their loved ones.
The charges boil down to the word of a security agent contracted by an influential company seeking to do strip mining inside the protected zone of a national park - a park established in memory of an assassinated environmentalist. Because the mining and associated road construction imperil two principal rivers in the vicinity, threatening the water supply of local communities in terms of both quality and quantity, local people mobilized against it.
When the company's attempt to advance road construction came face-to-face with a mass protest, the security agent asserts that he was kidnapped by protesters, who he claims to have identified later by looking at social media posts that show community leaders and activists. Another prosecution witness testified that the supposedly kidnapped man was making phone calls to him during the time of his alleged captivity, during which the security agent said his phones had been taken away. And a police official testified that, after he inquired of a recognized community leader about the security contractor, he was promptly delivered, scared but otherwise in normal condition.
Other charges against the 8 defendants include arson and destruction of company property (one company vehicle and two storage containers caught fire), without any witness so far identifying the accused as having any involvement in those acts.
Inside the courtroom, the defense attorneys make a determined effort to protect due process and the rights of defendants in a criminal trial, while the public and private prosecutors (the company, under Honduran law, has seats at the prosecution table) belittle them and not infrequently try to interrupt and talk over them.
This is an emblematic case with implications for the defense of water and the environment against greed, not only in Honduras. In court, at this stage, each side has finished presenting evidence, but closing arguments have been postponed at the request of the public prosecutor, despite the postponement's being inconsistent with the Honduran judicial principle of continuity in a trial.
We - the defendants, the community, and everyone in solidarity with them - wait to see if justice is served, or if another case is added to the long list of those where raw power made victims of the innocent.