April 12, 2008

Chiapas - Mexico's Tibet

by Julie Webb-Pullman

On 10 April, a petition signed by more than 30 New Zealanders was delivered to the Mexican Ambassador to New Zealand, Angélica Arce, declaiming ongoing human rights abuses of indigenous Mexicans, impunity for the perpetrators, and marking the 89th anniversary of the assassination of Mexican indigenous revolutionary Emiliano Zapata, whose fight for justice for indigenous Mexicans still continues.

The petition demanded the release of political prisoners participating in hunger strikes in Chiapas and Tabasco, the security and protection of those released since the hunger strike began, and the cessation of human rights abuses and miscarriages of justice.

The recent hunger strike has highlighted the paucity of justice for poor and indigenous campesinos in Chiapas. The stories of the protesters are a litany of arbitrary detentions (without an arrest warrant), fabricated charges, confessions obtained under torture, and imprisonment for crimes not committed. (see http://www.narconews.com/Issue52/article3048.html) As all the protesters were members of social organizations, the hunger strike also dramatized the use of torture and other human rights abuses to silence free speech and social dissent.

Unfortunately, such abuses also occur in other heavily indigenous southern states of Mexico, including Guerrero and Oaxaca, where on Tuesday two community journalists, Teresa Bautista Merino and Felicitas Martínez Sánchez, were murdered. Both women worked with the radio station "The Voice That Breaks the Silence" (La Voz Que Rompe El Silencio), and were ambushed while on their way to Oaxaca city to participate in the State Forum for the Defense of the Rights of the Peoples of Oaxaca, where they were to co-ordinate the working group for Community and Alternative Communication: Community Radio, Video, Press, and Internet.

Already several international organisations such as The World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters, Article 19, and Reporters Without Borders are calling for the punishment of all those responsible for the murder of these journalists, the guaranteed safety of the three surviving victims of the attack, and an end to the impunity that allows the ongoing repression, disappearances, and murders of journalists and mediamakers in general, which makes Mexico the most dangerous country for journalists in the Americas.

Maybe if Mexico was hosting the Olympics, more people might notice, or even care. Religious repression is not confined to Tibet, as local Mexican Roman Catholic organisations such as The Fray Bartolomé de las Casas Human Rights Center (Frayba) are well aware - they also have been demanding an end to the rampant injustices and impunity in Chiapas and elsewhere, including against Catholics. The Tres Cruces case, for instance, involves Zacario Hernandez Hernandez, the indigenous prisoner who initiated the hunger strike on February 12, and three other Tzotziles from Chamula, who in 2003 were accused of murder, arrested and had been confined in the state's El Amate prison ever since. Zacario is a catechist from San Juan Chamula municipality and a member of Pueblo Creyente (Believing People), a Catholic organization in the Diocese of San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas. Frayba has suggested that Zacario was falsely accused of the crimes because he was affecting the interests of local political bosses by practicing the Catholic religion as a catechist.

On February 19, approximately ten thousand Catholics belonging to Pueblo Creyente marched through the streets of San Cristóbal de las Casas. Singing, carrying banners and accompanied by their priests and bishops, they demanded the release of Zacario Hernández Hernández and the three others imprisoned in the Tres Cruces case. Pueblo Creyente stated "they have suffered a judicial process full of falsities, injustices and corruption."

The Voice of El Amate (an organization of political prisoners confined in the El Amate prison) joined in the hunger strike at the end of February. From there, the hunger strike and partial fast spread to 3 Chiapas prisons (Cereso 5, Cereso 14 and Cereso 17) and Tacotalpa in Tabasco, where two Zapatista political prisoners from Chiapas are incarcerated.

In all, a total of 46 political prisoners and members of 5 organizations participated in the protest, and members of the Other Campaign in Chiapas, relatives of the prisoners, and members of various social organizations set up an encampment on the front steps of the government palace in Tuxtla Gutierrez, the capital of Chiapas, in support of the hunger strike.

Following increasing local, national and international attention, Zacario Hernandez Hernandez was finally released from prison on March 17, after 35 days without food. On March 30 and 31, the government released another 29 of those participating in the protest. Upon their release, many of the hunger strikers joined the Tuxtla encampment in support of the 17 who still remain in prison.

The New Zealand petition demanded that the Mexican Government free all of the political prisoners still confined in Ceresos 5 and 14 in Chiapas and the two more in Tacotalpa, Tabasco. Still imprisoned in Cereso 5 are: Tiburcio Gomez Perez, Diego Rodriguez Hernandez, Agustin Rodriguez Jimenez, Antonio Diaz Perez, Miguel Diaz Lopez, Juan Díaz Lopez, Nicolas Perez Nuñez. In Cereso 14: Alberto Patistan Gomez, Julio Cesar Perez Ruiz, Marcelino Días gonzalez, Jose Perez Perez, Jesús Lopez Lopez, Maria Delia Perez Arizmendi, Antonio Gomez Días and Miguel Gomez Gomez. In Tacotalpa, Tabasco: Angel Concepción Perez Gutierrez and Francisco Perez Vazquez.

Mexican Ambassador to New Zealand Angélica Arce on Friday advised the petitioners that their concerns will be forwarded to the Mexican authorities "As we do not currently have any detailed information about the specific cases to which you refer, we shall write to the appropriate officials in the hope of clarifying the situation," she added.

One can only hope that the murders of Teresa Bautista Merino and Felicitas Martínez Sánchez will also be 'clarified', and that not only Winston Peters, but all New Zealanders, will put as much pressure on our other most recent free-trade partner as they have on China, to extend the enjoyment of basic human rights, especially justice, to all of their citizens.


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