By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife with reporting from Mexico
MEXICO CITY, MEXICO (BosNewsLife)– Twenty men, most of them evangelical Christians, were free Friday, August 14, after spending more than a decade in prison as Mexico’s Supreme Court overturned their sentences in a massacre in southern Chiapas state.
Mexico’s top court ruled that prosecutors used illegally obtained evidence to charge the men with involvement in killing 45 Indian villagers, including children as young as two months old, on December 22, 1997, in the hamlet of Acteal.
The men had always maintained their innocence. “We were in prison for almost 12 years, for a crime that we didn’t commit,” said Antonio Ruiz Perez, one of the 20 Tzotzil Indian men in a statement to reporters. “That is almost 12 years they robbed from our lives, and separated us from our families.”
However, “We don’t hold any resentment against the people who unfairly accused us,” Ruiz Perez said, adding that “We don’t want any more problems, that’s why we are not going back.”
The identities of the other freed men were not immediately released. They were taken Thursday, August 13, for resettlement to the town of Berriozabal, about 50 miles (80 kms) west of Acteal. The Acteal victims were supporters of the leftist Zapatista rebels, and the men convicted in the killings were from a neighboring pro-government hamlet that had political and territorial disputes with the victims, trial observers said.
Chiapas Interior Secretary Noe Castanon said the men will be relocated away from their home village near the massacre site to avoid tensions with survivors and their families.
One survivor Antonio Arias, who was wounded in the attack, already warned of troubles, saying the ruling could spark more unrest in Acteal if those released return there. “We know they are responsible because we saw them,” Arias told reporters in the nearby city of San Cristobal de las Casas.
Yet, the release of the men was welcomed by local evangelical Christians and Christian rights groups who said they were caught between survivors seeking justice and government forces eager to shift blame. “Acteal is a double tragedy,” attorney Javier Cruz Angulo said in published remarks following the ruling.
“On the one hand you have an abominable massacre, and on the other more than 50 human beings imprisoned without proofs.” The court was to review cases of another 31 jailed men convicted in connection with the killing. Six other inmates will be given new trials, Mexican media reported. Christians and independent investigators said 32 of the 57 men jailed for the crime were Christians.
Another 15 prisoners reportedly became Christians behind bars. However judges stressed they were not ruling on the guilt or innocence of the men. The court only cited “irregularities” such as the failure to provide interpreters for suspects who speak the Tzotzil Indian language. Prosecutors also apparently took pictures of the suspects and showed them to witnesses, who later identified the men as perpetrators.
The bloodshed in Acteal has been described as “the worst single instance of violence” during the conflict in Chiapas state, which began when Zapatista rebels staged a brief armed uprising in early 1994 to demand more rights for Indians.
Paramilitaries with alleged ties to government officials attacked a prayer meeting of Roman Catholic activists who sympathized with the rebels, according to witness accounts and human rights groups.
Over several hours on December 22, 1997, the assailants killed 45 people, including infants.