Judges to review genocide case against Mexican ex-president

Nation's top court agrees to decide whether statute of limitations has expired

October 14, 2004|By Letta Tayler | Letta Tayler,NEWSDAY

MEXICO CITY - In a victory for human rights groups, Mexico's highest court agreed yesterday to review a case seeking to charge a former president with genocide for a 1971 student massacre during this country's "dirty war" against leftist dissidents.

The Supreme Court will not judge the merits of the charges against ex-President Luis Echeveria and 13 other former government officials in connection with one of Mexico's most infamous massacres.

Rather, it will determine whether a lower-court judge was wrong to reject the case on grounds that the statute of limitations had expired.

Nevertheless, human rights and legal experts hailed the court's unanimous decision as a significant step toward bringing top officials to justice in the dirty war of the 1960s through the 1980s, for which no public officials have been convicted.

"That the Supreme Court agreed to become involved in one of the most delicate and politically charged issues facing this country is extremely important," said Sergio Aguayo, a leading dirty-war expert and human rights activist here.

If the court upholds the case, an arrest warrant will be issued for Echeverria, 82.

That would make him only the second president in Mexican history to face criminal charges. President Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna was convicted in 1844 of crimes against the state, but he was later granted amnesty.

Echeverria, who was president from 1970 to 1976, did not return calls for comment.

Ignacio Carillo Prieto, the special prosecutor investigating dirty-war crimes, says an elite government squad under Echeverria's control fatally shot about 30 student protesters without provocation in the so-called "Corpus Christi massacre" of June 10, 1971.

Echeverria's lawyers contend students provoked the attack and says 11 were killed.

The court's decision is good news for President Vicente Fox, who took office in 2000 after seven decades of rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party, which has been accused of rampant corruption and impunity.

Fox campaigned on a promise to bring justice in the dirty war, which claimed between 500 and several thousand lives. But Carillo's work has been poorly funded and hampered by many politicians and midlevel judges.

The Supreme Court will examine issues including whether the 30-year statute of limitations on the Corpus Christi slayings might extend to 2012, three decades after initial investigations were closed, rather than three decades after the actual slayings, as the lower-court judge had ruled.

Still, it's hardly certain that Echeverria would be charged with genocide, legal experts contend. Even with solid laws or evidence, "proving genocide in a court is invariably challenging," said Diane Orentlicher, a genocide expert at American University law school.

Mexico defines genocide as acts committed with intent to partly or entirely destroy a national, ethnic, racial or religious group.

Carrillo, who could find no other applicable charge, contends a national group could include political dissidents, an argument used by prosecutors examining massacres in Yugoslavia and Argentina.

In those countries, legal experts note, the number of victims far surpassed those of the Corpus Christi slayings.

Newsday is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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