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Mexico Gives Foreign Activists New Rules

Government: Rights groups decry restrictions imposed after Italians defied authorities.


MEXICO CITY — Authorities announced that they will impose new restrictions on human rights observers trying to visit Mexico, prompting charges Friday from international groups that their work will be severely curtailed.

Fernando Solis, head of Mexico's migration service, announced the rules after a group of Italian activists defied the government and marched to a troubled town in the state of Chiapas, where they clashed with local Indians.

"These observers are showing disrespect for our laws and offending the country that opened its doors to them. That has made it necessary for the government to establish stricter rules," Solis said.

But human rights activists termed the regulations a draconian response to the Italians' controversial visit to Chiapas, the southern state where left-wing Zapatista rebels have been maintaining a tense cease-fire after they waged a brief war against the army in 1994.

The Mexican government is "making it more and more difficult for legitimate human rights groups to do their job and really calling into question their own commitment to human rights," said Eric Olsen, a senior associate at the Washington Office on Latin America, a think tank.

The weeklong visit by 135 Italian activists has raised a furor in this strongly nationalist country.

The Italians, members of a group called Ya Basta (Enough Already), defied police and immigration authorities who told them that they had no permission to visit Taniperlas, a town where authorities recently dismantled a separatist government established by Zapatista supporters.

Arriving there Thursday, the Italian observers were attacked by some local pro-government Indians, who slightly injured two of the foreigners.

Solis accused the Italians of trying to provoke the authorities into using violence to "dirty Mexico's international image."

As hopes for a peace accord in the Chiapas conflict grow increasingly dim, the Mexican government has stepped up its criticism of foreign activists who visit Chiapas to support the Zapatistas and their allies.

About two dozen foreigners have been expelled in recent months.

Under the new regulations, human rights observers must seek special visas 60 days before visiting Mexico. They must describe where they will go and with whom they plan to speak. Human rights delegations will be limited to 10 members and visits of 10 days. They must be invited by a Mexican group.

The regulations were announced Thursday by Solis in a meeting with Mexican reporters. A spokesman provided a transcript of his comments but said Solis was unavailable Friday for an interview.

Foreign human rights observers said the new laws will make it impossible for them to respond quickly to important events, like the massacre in December of 45 Zapatista supporters in the Chiapas village of Acteal. Pro-government gunmen have been charged with carrying out that attack.

The observers also said that being required to name people they planned to interview could put those individuals at risk of reprisals. And they insisted that they needed freedom to move around when conducting investigations.

Joel Solomon of the Americas Watch group said the new restrictions appeared to "institutionalize a set of such demanding and onerous, potentially dangerous restrictions, such as essentially to send a message, 'We don't want human rights observers.' "

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