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MEXICO UNDER SIEGE

Mexican bill on civilian trials for soldiers seen as falling short

It would require civilian trials for soldiers charged with torture, rape and forced disappearances. Rights groups say the bill should also cover unlawful detention and extrajudicial killings.

October 19, 2010|By Ken Ellingwood, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Mexico City — A proposal by Mexican President Felipe Calderon to try soldiers in civilian courts doesn't go far enough to protect people against abuse by troops assigned to the drug war, human rights advocacy groups said Tuesday.

The bill before Mexico's Congress would require civilian trials for soldiers charged with torture, rape and forced disappearances. But rights advocates say the list excludes other serious crimes such as unlawful detention and extrajudicial killings.

"Any reform of the military code should include civilian jurisdiction for all human rights abuses, not just a selection of certain abuses," said Maureen Meyer, who monitors Mexican issues at the Washington Office on Latin America.

Amnesty International and the Mexico office of the United Nations high commissioner for human rights issued statements urging lawmakers to broaden the proposal to place every case of alleged abuse by soldiers under civilian jurisdiction.

Nik Steinberg, Mexico researcher for New York-based Human Rights Watch, said that under the measure, the military could seek to classify abuses as lesser offenses during preliminary investigations to steer cases from civilian prosecution.

Mexico's human rights ombudsman has accused the army of manipulating the scenes of alleged abuses and obstructing outside investigations.

"This is a cosmetic gesture meant to give the appearance of reforming what, in practice, will continue to remain the same," said a declaration by 13 Mexican rights groups.

Calderon submitted the bill Monday, saying it would allow Mexico to meet international standards and comply with a ruling last year by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in a 1970s-era abuse case.

Alejandro Poire, the administration's drug war spokesman, said the measure sought to balance the rights of civilians against those of soldiers and the military's need to ensure discipline.

"This proposed reform doesn't eliminate military jurisdiction — it modernizes it," Poire said at a news conference.

Rights groups say Mexican troops should be subject to civilian prosecution to provide more accountability than under the military's system of closed-door proceedings.

But the military, one of the country's most respected and powerful institutions, has long resisted such efforts. As a result, it is difficult to know how aggressively the armed forces are policing their own.

The issue has become more urgent since Calderon began deploying soldiers against organized crime cartels four years ago. The deployment has led to thousands of rights complaints.

Military leaders have added human rights training and say they prosecute wrongdoers when they have evidence. But prosecutions are few.

ken.ellingwood@latimes.com

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