April 07, 2008

Catholic Church helps broker deal to free Mexican political prisoners

LONDON - 7 April 2008 - 340 words

A total of 145 Mexican political prisoners, many of whom were held in appalling conditions for several years and forced to confess to fabricated crimes under torture, have been freed after the Catholic Church helped broker a deal with the Chiapas state government.

The prisoners ­ 43 of whom spent more than a month on hunger strike in protest against their detention ­ had been accused of being linked to the Zapatista revolutionary movement.

Earlier this week the Chiapas Minister of Justice, Amador Rodriguez Lozano, publicly acknowledged the inmates' innocence and said they had not had adequate legal representation. He also promised to prosecute those responsible for unlawfully imprisoning them.

Prominent bishops and The Fray Bartolomé de las Casas Human Rights Centre, which works in partnership with aid agency CAFOD, campaigned for the release of the hunger-strike prisoners for many weeks, which in turn led to cases of nearly 300 inmates being reviewed.

At the beginning of March the Chiapas state governor, congress and judiciary, set up a Reconciliation Commission. Some 100 lawyers were brought in to study cases from 1994 - 2006 and discovered the systematic use of torture and sexual abuse and the fabrication of evidence.

On March 18th Zacario Hernandez - who began the hunger-strike - was freed, followed by the remaining 143 men and one woman on March 31 and April 1.

However, 17 political prisoners who are supported by the Fray Bartolomé de las Casas Centre are still being held in Chiapas jails and continue to fast.

In 1994 the Zapatistas led an armed uprising ­ which gained massive public support ­ protesting against the poverty and deprivation of the indigenous communities and calling for greater political autonomy in Chiapas.

Since then, successive Mexican governments have favoured a policy of military force over negotiation and stationed large numbers of soldiers in the region to repress any further unrest.

The Mexican army and prison authorities have a brutal human rights record, with torture being used to extract forced confessions commonplace.

Sarah Smith-Pearse, from CAFOD's Latin American and Caribbean department, said: "This is a real breakthrough in the long-standing political conflict in Chiapas. The Mexican authorities haven't just freed a few prisoners; they are saying that torture and false imprisonment are unacceptable and that they are going to address the issue. It's a complete turn-around and a gesture of peace and reconciliation after so many years of military repression."


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