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International human rights court blames Mexican army for torture

December 21, 2010 | 12:55 pm


Mexico has been hit by another international human rights judgment against its army. In a long-awaited decision, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled against Mexico and in favor of two peasant ecologists who had long claimed they were illegally detained and tortured by Mexican soldiers working at the behest of powerful logging companies.

It is the third such case to go against Mexico this year and was applauded by human rights organizations here and in the U.S. who called for Mexico to submit military abuses to civilian justice.

Rodolfo Montiel and Teodoro Cabrera were activists working to protect the mountainside forests in southern Mexico's Guerrero state from often illegal logging by local land barons. They staged disruptive demonstrations and blocked roads. The army arrested them in 1999 in a raid that killed a third member of the peasant movement. The men said they were held incommunicado and beaten on their legs, torsos and testicles until they signed false confessions.

"They threatened us, they said they had our families and would hurt them," Montiel told the Los Angeles Times in this report from August. Although the Mexican human rights commission determined they'd been tortured, a military prosecutor rejected the claims and signed off on the case. The men were convicted on what they say were trumped-up weapons and drug charges. They were released two years later under international pressure but never pardoned. (Montiel received political asylum from the U.S. and lives in California.)

In a 134-page ruling posted on its website Monday (link in Spanish), the court said the Mexican government had violated Montiel and Cabrera's "rights to liberty and personal integrity" as well as their rights to due process and judicial protection. It ordered Mexico to properly investigate the torture allegations and pay Montiel and Cabrera damages. Moreover, it said the military judiciary that handled the case was not the proper venue.

"The prosecution of those responsible [for human rights violations] always corresponds to ordinary [civilian] justice, and not just for cases of torture, forced disappearance and sexual violation but for all violations of human rights," the court said.

Allegations of serious human rights abuses by the military -- from robbery and illegal detention to rape and murder -- have skyrocketed in the last four years as the army took on the fight against powerful drug cartels. Three of the four international human rights cases that Mexico recently lost, including the Montiel-Cabrera matter, involve abuse by the military, but all pre-date the drug war, which activists say establishes a long pattern of impunity.

The most problematic issue, activists say, is that military abuses are investigated by a military tribunal, which almost always seems to clear the accused and has long raised serious questions of credibility. Although President Felipe Calderon recently moved to have some violations brought to civilian courts, the reform is too limited to be effective, human rights groups say.

The case of the ecologists "lays bare all of the reasons the military should not investigate its own soldiers for human rights abuses," Jose Miguel Vivanco, Americas director for the New York-based Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. "(T)he manipulation of evidence, the military's use of torture to elicit confessions, and the completely inadequate investigations into serious violations."

The Mexican Miguel Agustin Pro Juarez Human Rights Center here in Mexico City, which represented Montiel and Cabrera, called on the Mexican government to "fully comply" with the ruling (link in Spanish), saying such action "is indispensable as unmistakable proof of the Mexican state's commitment to human rights."

Rulings by the court, which is based in San Jose, Costa Rica, and is an arm of the Organization of American States, are binding. The Mexican government has said it will abide by the ruling.

 -- Tracy Wilkinson in Mexico City

Photo: Rodolfo Montiel and Teodoro Cabrera shown shortly after their release from prison in 2001. Credit: El Universal (file photo).