Gender, Headlines, Human Rights, Indigenous Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

RIGHTS-MEXICO: Wrongly Imprisoned Native Woman Released

Emilio Godoy

MEXICO CITY, Sep 17 2009 (IPS) - “I cried a lot, I couldn’t believe I was in prison. The day I was put in jail, I never thought I would be there for a long time,” an indigenous market vendor, Jacinta Francisco, said Thursday in Mexico after she was released from prison, where she spent three years for a crime she did not commit.

Francisco had been sentenced to 21 years in prison on charges of kidnapping six agents of the now-defunct Federal Investigation Agency. Her case sparked an outcry from local and international human rights groups, and she was adopted as a prisoner of conscience by the London-based Amnesty International.

The 46-year-old Otomí Indian was released from prison Wednesday in the city of Querétaro, 200 km northwest of the Mexican capital, where she was held since August 2006. Her release was the result of an appeal that she won in April.

She was arrested more than four months after a March 2006 raid by the federal police agency on stalls selling pirate DVDs in a street market in the village of Santiago Mexquititlán in the central state of Querétaro, where agents claimed they had been held hostage by Francisco and other stall holders.

Luís Arriaga, director of the Miguel Agustín Pro Juárez Human Rights Centre (PRODH), which defended and provided economic support for Francisco, said in a press conference in Mexico City Thursday that “with this act of justice, not only are the authorities admitting her innocence, but they are acknowledging that there were grave irregularities in the proceedings against her.”

The National Human Rights Commission, a government body, concluded in July that there were serious irregularities and fabricated evidence in the case.

In the March 2006 incident, angry street vendors surrounded six federal agents who were confiscating their counterfeit goods, briefly holding them hostage while demanding compensation for the loss of their merchandise. The protest apparently ended when the regional police chief brought money from a nearby town to compensate the stall holders for the damages.

But that evening, the federal agents filed a complaint with the Attorney General’s Office, stating that they had been kidnapped for several hours by the protesters.

Because of the lack of formal sector jobs in Mexico, millions of people are forced to work in the informal economy, with many making a living selling counterfeit goods. Raids by the authorities frequently cause tension and even spark violence as merchandise is seized.

In Francisco’s case, the PRODH says the trial was riddled with irregularities. The human rights group says no evidence was presented to prove she was involved in the incident, and that the sentence was based exclusively on the testimony of the federal police agents, who were never even required to appear during the trial to confirm her identification, which was based on a photo in the local newspaper taken while she was walking behind the crowd of protesters.

Amnesty International reported that in their original statements, in late March 2006, the police agents did not refer to Francisco. They only accused her of involvement a month later, when shown the photo from the local paper.

In addition, the PRODH says she was denied the presumption of innocence, and that she had no access to an interpreter.

Francisco, who is illiterate and spoke little Spanish at the time – like many other speakers of native languages in Mexico – did not understand what was happening during the trial, as her state-appointed public defender did not speak to her to explain her rights.

“This has become a scandal, a symbol of how this country’s weak and ineffective justice system works,” Alberto Herrera, head of Amnesty International – Mexico, said in Thursday’s news briefing.

The Attorney General’s Office reported that a review of her case turned up “contradictions in the statements of federal agents…that created a reasonable doubt about her involvement.” It decided not to contest the appeal that Francisco won, although it did not acknowledge irregularities in the case.

Amnesty International is also demanding new trials for two other Otomí women – Teresa González and Alberta Alcántara – convicted in the case. But the Attorney General’s Office said there is strong evidence against the two.

“I’m happy because I am back with my family again. I thought I wouldn’t see them anymore,” said Francisco, who started out speaking Otomí before switching to Spanish, which she learned in prison.

“When I was sentenced, I didn’t want anyone to know. But if no one had known, I would still be in prison,” she said, wearing a traditional black blouse and purple shawl, and breaking down in tears a few times as she recalled her time in prison.

She told reporters that “I didn’t even know what kidnapping was.”

Her legal defence team at the PRODH is considering suing for damages.

“We still have time to file new legal action in this case,” her lawyer Andrés Díaz told IPS. “The position taken by the Attorney General’s Office is not charity; it is an act of justice, because these women have not committed any crime.”

Amnesty International deputy director for the Americas Kerrie Howard said those responsible for the time Francisco spent in prison should be brought to justice, and she should receive “appropriate compensation.”

After Alberto Brunori, representative of the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Mexico, visited Francisco in prison on Sept. 10, he said she and the other two women “must have access to legal mechanisms to demand reparations for the violation of their human rights.”

In its 2003 diagnosis of the human rights situation in Mexico, the OHCHR reported that many indigenous people find themselves at a loss when faced with officials from the public prosecutor’s offices or judges because they do not understand or speak Spanish very well and are not provided with an interpreter.

The U.N. office also noted that indigenous people are particularly vulnerable in terms of the administration of justice, and are often the victims of discrimination, humiliations and abuses.

“Jacinta was awkward for Mexico’s justice system,” journalist José Gil wrote Thursday in a column published by the Apro news agency. “She had become the most obvious example of the outrages committed by the authorities who enforce the laws and administer justice in this country.”

Francisco, accompanied by her husband Guillermo and two of their six children, and PRODH director Arriaga said there are many such cases of injustice in Mexico.

“We know there are many Jacintas, which dampens our enthusiasm over her release,” said Arriaga.

The shortcomings of the justice system accentuate “the vulnerability of those who suffer discrimination and violence because of their gender identity, ethnic origin or social status,” said the activist.

Francisco learned knitting and other skills working in a textile workshop in prison. But she was also discriminated against “as a poor, indigenous woman,” she said.

“It’ll be hard to start over again, but I am not ashamed because I know I didn’t do anything. I am going back to selling juice,” said Francisco.

Amnesty International Mexico researcher Rupert Knox stated earlier that “Jacinta’s case is a scandal. This is a travesty of justice and a clear example of the second class justice that indigenous people often receive in Mexico. Jacinta’s story shows how the Mexican criminal justice system is being misused to unfairly prosecute the most vulnerable. She has been targeted because of her ethnicity, gender and social status.”

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