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Fox Pardons Activists Jailed After Opposition to Logging

Mexico: Weeks following the unsolved assassination of the two men's lawyer, the president frees them.


MEXICO CITY — President Vicente Fox on Thursday pardoned two peasant ecologists who had been imprisoned on drug and weapons charges that they and their supporters contend were false accusations meant to intimidate opponents to logging in southwestern Mexico.

The pardon of Rodolfo Montiel and Teodoro Cabrera came after the Oct. 19 killing of human rights lawyer Digna Ochoa, who defended the men. Her staunch legal support of the ecologists and sympathizers of leftist guerrillas had put her at odds with Mexico's old guard.

The unsolved slaying of Ochoa in her Mexico City office has raised a firestorm of criticism and editorials urging that the Fox administration find her killers and bring them to justice. Some see her case as a test of his promise to reduce human rights violations and the impunity of the past.

The imprisonment of the two men in May 1999 and their conviction in August 2000 made them a cause celebre among environmentalists. Fox had publicly expressed interest in the case and in February had ordered a review by his interior secretary. But a federal court upheld the verdicts in July.

Montiel received a sentence of six years and eight months; Cabrera was given 10 years.

Montiel appeared at a news conference here Thursday night and said he never feared for his health in prison. "It's the people doing the logging who should worry. They need fresh air and water too," Montiel said.

A Mexican official said privately Thursday that the government would have preferred that their case be resolved through an expected acquittal in the appeals process in coming months. But the negative worldwide reaction to Ochoa's slaying prompted Fox to assert his prerogative, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

In a brief statement at the presidential residence, Fox said the pardon was based on advice from a team of legal experts that he had appointed this year.

"With these actions we are showing with deeds the commitment of my government to the promotion and observance of human rights in our country," said Fox, who is scheduled to arrive in New York today for meetings at the United Nations. Fox noted that numerous domestic and foreign human rights groups had requested the men's release.

In an interview Thursday, Foreign Secretary Jorge Castaneda said more actions to defend human rights will be taken in coming weeks.

"The case was emblematic because of the number of issues it raised--environmental, rural violence, the role of the military in past rights abuses," he said. "I think this is a first step, an important first step."

Montiel had organized villagers in the Sierra Madre mountains to oppose commercial logging by Boise Cascade and other companies. Boise Cascade has since left the area. Protesting the deforestation of their region, the peasants wrote letters to the government. When that got no response, they blocked steep mountain roads to prevent logging trucks from reaching sawmills on the Pacific Coast near Zihuatanejo.

The men were arrested by the army. Prosecutors said the men were taken into custody after they and others fled a house, ignored orders to stop and opened fire on soldiers. Montiel was accused of having a .45-caliber pistol; both men were charged with growing marijuana.

Both men confessed, but defense attorneys at the legal aid group Miguel Agustin Pro Human Rights Center in Mexico City said the men did so under torture. Ochoa helped in their defense until August 2000, when she went into exile after being kidnapped and threatened with death. She returned to Mexico in April.

The prisoners' release Thursday in Guerrero state was hailed by human rights organizations.

"We said all along that they didn't belong in prison, that what they did was covered by Mexican law and United Nations principles," said Folabi Olagbaju of Amnesty International in Washington. "The marijuana charges were trumped up. They were prisoners of conscience.

"Our only concern is why now, why not six months ago," Olagbaju added. "It must have to do with the murder of Digna Ochoa."

While hailing the release, Global Exchange, a San Francisco-based human rights organization, called on Fox to release nine other members of the Montiel-Cabrera group still in jail.

"We feel their cases need to be reviewed immediately as well," said Carleen Pickard of Global Exchange.


Times staff writer James F. Smith in Oaxaca, Mexico, contributed to this report.

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