Netherlands-based Open Doors, which assists 79 detained men, said Mexico’s Supreme Court decided "to review" the case of 17 prisoners who were sentenced to up to 26 years imprisonment.
The procedure, which is expected to take two months, could “positively” impact the prospects for the other detainees, Open Doors said. "If the request for a review was rejected, there would have been no hope for other prisoners as well," said Open Doors Spokesman Jeno Sebok. He suggested that a positive ruling could increase the prospects for an early release of all detainees.
Earlier, authorities already released several prisoners of the original group of 90 detainees, although they were not declared innocent, BosNewsLife established.
The men currently detained were arrested for their alleged involvement in a massacre just before Christmas in 1997, when 45 Tzotzil Indians were shot and killed in a church in the remote southern village of Acteal in the Mexican state of Chiapas.
The inmates, mainly native Indians, were sentenced to prison terms ranging 25 to 36 years, despite evidence that most and probably all men were innocent, Open Doors and other human rights groups said. “The case is very complicated and politically sensitive. Two lawyers have even received letters in which they and their families were threatened,” Open Doors explained.
Investigators claim the 45 Tzotzil Indians, including men, pregnant women and children, were shot and killed by government-backed paramilitary forces who stormed the village church where they were praying.
Human rights group Amnesty International has concluded there is "compelling evidence" that "the authorities facilitated the arming of paramilitaries" to carry out the massacre on December 22, 1997.
The massacre came amid growing tensions in Chiapas where groups, including Zapatistas rebels, have been fighting to end what they view as centuries of discrimination of Tzotzil Indians and others considered excluded from mainstream Mexican politics.
Mexico’s 13 million Indians are among the poorest people in the country, with high rates of illiteracy and malnutrition. That, and skewed land distribution in Chiapas, were major factors leading to a 1994 revolt when Zapistas briefly overran villages and tows in the region, analysts say.
At least half of the men jailed since 1997 for the massacre are "evangelical Christians" and several of them "found Christ in prison," Open Doors explained. In a published letter, Acteal prisoners wrote: "We pray day and night, crying to God – not only for ourselves, but also for our families who are completely abandoned. God is our only hope."
Back home, their wives and children reportedly struggle to survive. Their poverty and isolation means they can only visit their husbands once a month, Open Doors said.
The organization works with Mexican lawyers to assist the prisoners. “A group of eight lawyers even volunteered to take up the case as they are convinced that there is enough evidence that most defendants are innocent, “ said Open Doors, which also supports families of evangelical prisoners.