Civil Society, Environment, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

MEXICO: Environmentalist Peasants Seek Justice

Emilio Godoy

MEXICO CITY, Aug 26 2010 (IPS) - Peasant activists Rodolfo Montiel and Teodoro Cabrera hope to find, at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, the justice that eluded them in their home country of Mexico, to which they hope to return to rejoin their families.

“I told them the whole truth, all of the incidents we went through, why we were arrested, tortured and imprisoned, and why I had to flee into exile in the United States,” Montiel, a campesino and environmental activist from the southern state of Guerrero, told IPS by telephone.

The two activists were arrested in 1999 on trumped-up charges but were released in November 2001 by then President Vicente Fox (2000-2006) after a major international outcry. However, they were neither pardoned, nor did they receive damages for the abuses and torture they suffered. Now they want their names cleared.

Montiel, who was granted political asylum in the United States in 2007, after receiving death threats, is living in California.

On Thursday he testified before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in San José, Costa Rica, the court of last resort established by the Organisation of American States (OAS) in 1979.

The Court is hearing Montiel and Cabrera’s case Thursday and Friday, during its 88th period of sessions running from Aug. 23 to Sept. 4.


After their arrest, the environmentalists were held incommunicado and tortured by Mexican soldiers. In 2000 they were sentenced to six and 10 years in prison, respectively, on charges of illegal weapons possession and growing marijuana.

Montiel, Cabrera and a group of other peasant activists founded the Organización de Campesinos Ecologistas de la Sierra de Petatlán y Coyuca de Catalán (OCESP – Organisation of Campesino Ecologists from the Sierra of Petatlán y Coyuca de Catalán) in 1999 to fight rampant and often illegal deforestation in that mountainous area 600 km southeast of the Mexican capital.

The two environmentalists, who have been awarded several international human rights prizes, including the Goldman Environmental Prize, known as the “Nobel prize for the environment”, flew to Costa Rica on Sunday, Aug. 22 and will stay in the Central American country until Sunday, Aug. 29.

Cabrera also lives outside of Mexico.

“We are optimistic.We believe Rodolfo Montiel gave a thorough, moving and truthful account of the human rights violations he suffered,” Jacqueline Sáenz, a lawyer with the Miguel Agustín Pro Juárez Human Rights Centre (PRODH),told IPS

In 2001, the PRODH, the Tlachinollan Human Rights Centre, and the Centre for Justice and International Law (CEJIL) presented the case to the Washington-based Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), stating that the two campesinos were in jail on trumped-up charges and had been tortured into confessing.

In June 2009, the IACHR referred their case to the Inter-American Court.

The human rights groups involved in the case presented two expert reports Thursday. The first was a 2000 report by Dr. Christian Tramsen of Denmark, a member of Physicians for Human Rights at the time, who examined Montiel and Cabrera in prison and verified their reports of torture.

The other report was by a Mexican expert in criminal law, Fernando Coronado Franco, who outlined the shortcomings of the Mexican justice system, which give rise to cases like the one involving Montiel and Cabrera, according to PRODH.

The Mexican government’s delegation presents its arguments before the Court on Friday, headed by Alejandro Negrín, director general of human rights and democracy in Mexico’s foreign ministry, and also made up of officials from the ministries of the interior and defence.

“We asked the state to publicly declare that we are innocent, and to investigate and bring to court the military personnel who tortured us,” Montiel said. “But they should be brought before a civilian judge, rather than military judges, because the military can’t investigate themselves.”

The lawsuit before the Court also raises questions about the military justice system, which dates back to 1933 and gives military courts jurisdiction when crimes are committed by on duty armed forces personnel.

The government of conservative President Felipe Calderón has announced that it will introduce a bill in Congress to reform the military justice system.

“The state continues to refuse to recognise human rights violations; its strategy has always been to deny, in these and other cases,” said Sáenz, who was in Costa Rica for the trial.

The human rights groups argue that Montiel and Cabrera suffered violations of their rights to liberty, security of person, personal integrity, freedom of association, and due process. They are seeking reparations for the two activists.

Inter-American Court rulings are binding.

Other members of OCESP have also been targeted. In 2004, Felipe Arreaga was arrested and accused of the 1998 murder of the son of a powerful local landowner and logging company owner, and in 2005 an attempt on the life of Alberto Peñaloza left him and two of his children wounded and two of his children dead.

In June 2009, OCESP members Leonel Castro and his nephew Ezequiel Castro were killed. They were two of five environmentalists murdered in Mexico last year, according to human rights organisations.

Montiel still suffers from pain in his testicles and his legs, “especially the right one, which is sort of numb.” The torture also permanently affected his arms, back and left ear.

“I have bad dreams, I forget things,” the activist said. “I feel a sensation of fear. I feel like I’m living in prison, because although I’m free, it’s worse than when I was in jail. Now that I’m in the United States, my family can’t come and see me.”

The Court is also hearing the case of two Mexican indigenous women, Inés Fernández and Valentina Rosendo, who were raped by soldiers in Guerrero state in 2002.

The Inter-American Court handed down two sentences against the Mexican state in November 2009.

The first involved the 2001 murders of three young women in Ciudad Juárez on the U.S. border, whose bodies were found on a piece of waste ground known as the Campo Algodonero (Cotton Field). The second found the Mexican state guilty in the forced disappearance of community leader Rosendo Radilla, abducted in 1974 by soldiers in the state of Guerrero.

 
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