CHIAPAS, Mexico - After years of asserting their innocence, a group of indigenous Zapatista advocates are free, for now.
The Mexican government released 149 political prisoners in the first two weeks of April, including 37 hunger strikers, almost all of whom were indigenous people from Chiapas who had been alleging they were the victims of torture, false imprisonment for political reasons, and other abuses. Another 20 prisoners are still incarcerated in Chiapas and Tabasco, but activists have not relented in their efforts, as further abuses in and outside the prisons are coming to light.
The vast majority of the freed prisoners was indigenous activists, and had been imprisoned at some point between 1994 and 2006. They were involved with social change groups such as the Zapatista Other Campaign, the Independent Agricultural Worker and Campesino Center (CIOAC in Spanish) and the Pueblo Creyente (Believing People), a group of indigenous Catholics active in social justice issues. Most of the freed men were from the Tzotzil, Tzeltal, Tojolabal or Chole communities in the Chiapas region. Among the leaders who first came out were Zacario Hernandez, Enrique Hernandez, Pascual Heredia Hernandez, Jose Luis Lopez Sanchez, Ramon Guardaz Cruz and Antonio Diaz Ruiz.
The Chiapas state government released the first 137 prisoners April 1 at a brief press event at the government;s palace in Tuxtla Gutierrez. In a press statement issued after the second release, Secretary of the Government Juan Antonio Morales Messner said, ''The liberation of more than 100 prisoners demonstrates the clear will of the government to do justice for those who had remained in jails for crimes they did not commit.''
The freed men had been incarcerated in three prisons in Chiapas and one in nearby Tabasco. They were greeted by hundreds of supporters, mainly indigenous women, who had been holding vigils outside of each of the facilities since Feb. 12 when Zacario Hernandez Hernandez became the first prisoner to hold a hunger strike. Hernandez was well-known in the region as a deacon in San Cristobal de las Casas parish.
Representatives of the main groups issued a press statement immediately following the release.
''Our liberation came from the unity of the people. It was not the will of the government, but it happened thanks to their support, from the united efforts of different organizations, such as our families, our hunger strikes and the solidarity and protests staged by people and groups such as the Fray Bartholomew de Las Casas Center for Human Rights [Frayba], The Other Campaign [Zapatistas], the Believing People and the Inter-American Human Rights Commission [affiliated with the Organization for American States] among others.
''We urge the government to free our fellow political prisoners in Ceresos 5 and 14 in Chiapas and two more colleagues in Tacotalpa, Tabasco,'' the statement continued. ''Because they still have not been taken into account, and that during their detention they have suffered torture, threats and fabricated charges ... and the majority, for being indigenous, did not have legal defense or a translator.'' Many of the indigenous in Chiapas do not speak Spanish.
The second group, which consisted of 12 Tzeltal men, was released April 8, also in front of the government palace in Tuxtla. Among this second group was Tiburcio Gomez Perez, who also issued a public statement, through his attorney, days after the release.
''I was tortured,'' he asserted. ''... The torture lasted five hours, they blindfolded me, put plastic bags over my head to asphyxiate me ... covered my face and bound my hands and feet and threw me in some water; I felt death ... and afterwards, they had me sign a document of false declaration that the same public ministry was declaring ... that I had no right to a public defender nor medical help nor a phone call.''
Gomez Perez also claimed, as did other prisoners, that after being tortured and forced to sign documents against their will, they were sent to another facility where they were beaten and tortured again. These accounts are consistent with reports issued by Frayba, which has been monitoring the Zapatista cases.
''This situation of systematic violations of the guarantees of justice ... creates a sense of impotence in those who have had to seek other means of applying pressure such as hunger strikes, as in these cases, putting in grave risk their physical well-being and their lives,'' according to the center's second report, released March 8. ''... The Mexican state is not complying with its duties in terms of human rights previously guaranteed by its own legislation ... and other international treaties, and it is responsible not only for torture, but the illegal deprivation of liberty and its consequent failure to adapt to national and international norms of justice.''
As of mid-April, the remaining prisoners in Chiapas and Tabasco were reconsidering another series of hunger strikes. In the meantime, Zapatista and other advocates continue to hold vigils and protests at the prisons and in front of the state government palace in Tuxla. Advocates from Frayba have also urged U.S. citizens to be wary of the upcoming Plan Mexico, an aid package of $1.4 billion to be used for law enforcement and combating the drug trade.
''It's advisable that the U.S. Congress seriously question the validity of such aid to a law enforcement system that clearly demonstrates deep corruption, impunity in the face of human rights abuses and incompetence,'' stated the center's report.