By Anastasia Moloney
BOGOTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - United Nations rights experts and more than 200 campaign groups called on the government of Honduras on Thursday to protect a key witness in the killing of activist Berta Caceres that has sparked widespread international condemnation.
Caceres, an indigenous land rights activist, was fatally shot by gunmen who broke into her home on March 3 in the Central American nation.
Activist Gustavo Castro Soto was injured in the attack and is a key witness in the slaying. Honduran authorities have prevented him from returning to his native Mexico.
Michel Frost, U.N. special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, in a statement called on Honduran authorities to guarantee that Castro not be put at risk.
"Gustavo should immediately be provided with effective protection and permitted to return to his country," he said.
"It is high time that the Government of Honduras addressed the flagrant impunity of the increased number of executions of human rights defenders in the country, especially targeting those who defend environmental and land rights," he said.
His call came on the same day that 220 rights groups sent an open letter to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry seeking support for an independent investigation to be led by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights into Caceres' killing.
"We ask that the State Department make clear to the Honduran government that future partnership and funding depends on demonstrating the political will to investigate and prosecute this crime and all crimes against human rights defenders," it said.
Signed by the International Trade Union Confederation and other major international groups, the letter also called for protection for Caceres' family and witnesses in the case.
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has granted Castro and Caceres' family protective measures, saying their lives were at risk.
With at least 109 activists killed in Honduras since 2010, the nation is the world's deadliest place to be a land rights or environmental campaigner, according to Global Witness, which investigates corruption, conflict and environmental destruction linked to natural resources.
Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez condemned Caceres' killing, and a criminal investigation has been launched.
A police source told Reuters that the only suspect arrested after the murder, which was Caceres's former partner and colleague, has been released.
Death threats against Caceres, a member of the Lenca indigenous group, increased after she led a campaign against the construction of the Agua Zarca hydroelectric dam that delayed the $50 million project.
Indigenous groups say they were not consulted before the dam was approved by lawmakers and that it threatens to uproot hundreds of people, flood their lands and destroy their livelihoods and water sources.
Following Caceres' killing, U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy said the dam project "should be abandoned," a call backed by the advocacy groups and Caceres' family.
Olivia Zuniga, Caceres's daughter, says she has little faith in Honduran authorities to find and punish those responsible for her mother's death and urged an independent investigation.
"We don't believe in or trust the justice system in Honduras," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview.
"This was a political crime," she said. "My mother was considered a hindrance, a nuisance for those who wanted to guarantee that the dam project went ahead."
(Reporting by Anastasia Moloney, Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)