Wrongly Imprisoned Native Woman in Mexico Released

“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 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 last week 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 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.

Story continues at http://www.ipsnews.net/news.asp?idnews=48487

See earlier posting: Indigenous Mexican woman accused of kidnapping six agents named Amnesty prisoner of conscience

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