Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Facing Escalating Protests, Chiapas Frees 30 Political Prisoners

With 17 prisoners still inside, the Other Campaign declares April 3 an International Day of Action

In what has been declared a stunning but partial victory for the Other Campaign, the Chiapas government freed thirty political prisoners last night in response to years of protests for their freedom, but not before giving some of them one last thorough beating. Seventeen prisoners remain incarcerated in Chiapas and Tabasco, thirteen of whom are on a hunger strike that has lasted 37 days so far. Prisoners, ex-prisoners, and their families and supporters are gearing up for an increasingly tense battle for the freedom of the remaining political prisoners. Outside medical experts say that the symptoms the hunger strikers report and the amount of time they've gone without food has put their lives in danger, and that they may begin to die as early as Sunday. The state government, however, declared that it refuses to negotiate over the remaining prisoners.

The liberated prisoners have declared that they will remain in the plantón (permanent protest encampment) outside the state government headquarters in Tuxtla until all of their compañeros are free. They maintain their fearless resolve despite the government's best efforts to keep them away, including threats and physical violence. Police refused to allow prisoners from the Cereso #17 prison in Catazaja to see the route they were taking to arrive at the government's press conference where it released the prisoners as part of a media stunt. According to the recently released prisoners, the police beat them on the way to the press conference until their heads and arms were purple and they were bleeding. Their wrists were bound tightly with tape, cutting off circulation to their hands. After the press conference, the police loaded them back into a government vehicle, beat some of them again, and told them they were going to be returned to jail, but then released them.

Their Crime: Being Indigenous and Poor

The prisoners belong to a variety of organizations, including EZLN bases of support, adherents to the Zapatistas' Other Campaign, an evangelical Christian organization, and the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD in its Spanish initials). The amount of time they've spent in jail varies: the two Zapatista prisoners in Tabasco have been imprisoned for twelve years, other prisoners for one year.

The prisoners were incarcerated under a wide array of circumstances. Paramilitary organizations accused some Zapatista support bases of crimes the paramilitaries themselves committed. Antonio Garcia Flores, for example, is a member of the EZLN and participated in the Zapatista's 1994 uprising. He was arrested then in Ocosingo after members of the paramilitary organization Chinchulines turned him in, then later released under an amnesty law that freed all Zapatista prisoners. The Chinchulines later dissolved and integrated themselves into the Organization for the Defense of Indigenous and Campesino Rights (Opddic in its Spanish initials), an anti-Zapatista paramilitary organization with a civilian face of legitimacy. In 1999, Opddic members accused him of “robbery with violence,” and in March 2006 the government imprisoned him under those charges. After serving two years in prison for a crime he did not commit, he was released last night.

Other prisoners, such as Julio Cesar Perez Ruiz, who became an adherent to the Other Campaign in prison, were imprisoned because a crime was committed and the government needed to jail someone for it, and any poor indian would do. While Perez was working in his cornfield with his father, a homicide occurred 40 km away. Despite his alibi and witness accounts of other suspects entering the area of the homicide, the government, having no desire to do the necessary work to solve the murder of a poor campesino, decided to jail another poor campesino and wash its hands of the whole matter. Perez was not released last night and remains on hunger strike.

Most of the ex-prisoners report that they had inadequate legal defense and did not understand court proceedings because the government did not provide a translator into their native languages of Tsotsil, Tzeltal, and Ch'ol. In this sense, the common thread that links all of the political prisoners is that they are poor indians.

Years of Struggle Inside and Outside the Prison Walls

According to Jose Perez Hernandez, father of Julio Cesar Perez Ruiz, the movement within the prison began when prisoners from various organizations began to talk to each other about how they were unjustly imprisoned. In this way they became aware of the epidemic of unjust imprisonment and their common willingness to do whatever it takes to win their freedom, so they decided to organize.

Two years ago, members of the prisoners organization “La Voz del Amate” in el Amate prison began a plantón within the prison. They camped out day and night on the prison grounds in a vocal protest of their unjust imprisonment, petitioned the state government for their release, and organized outside support through their families and activists who visited them in prison. Through their various organizational affiliations and outside support, they organized across four different prisons, including the Carcel Publica Municipal in Tacotalpa, Tabasco, where two Zapatistas are imprisoned. On February 12, 2008, Zacario Hernandez Hernandez, a member of La Voz del Amate, stepped up the protest and declared a hunger strike to demand their freedom. This sparked an escalation in the prisoners' tactics, and in the following weeks dozens more prisoners in the four jails joined the huger strike and plantónes. At its peak, 37 prisoners participated in the hunger strike with twelve more joining the plantón who couldn't hunger strike for health reasons. Many other prisoners supported the plantónistas and protected them from the prison guards.

On the March 24, the 29th day of the hunger strike, families and friends of the prisoners declared a planton outside the Palacio de Gobierno, the Chiapas state house in Tuxtla. They hung signs on the walls and windows of the Palacio and left coffins on the front steps under a banner that says, “This is how the government wants us to end up.” A week later, on March 29, Other Campaign adherents from Chiapas, Oaxaca, and Mexico City marched on the Palacio de Gobierno and encircled it in protest. The following day dozens of supporters and family members attempted to visit the prisoners, but after taking their IDs and recording all of their personal information, the prison authorities suddenly declared Sunday a families-only visit day and turned away all but one non-family visitor.

On March 31 the government announced that it planned to release 137 prisoners at a press conference that evening, including some of the hunger strikers and plantónistas. In a staged media spectacle called “Freedom to Do Justice,” the government released the prisoners and unilaterally ended negotiations over the remaining prisoners due to its claim that all unjustly imprisoned Chiapans were now free. This contradicts Gov. Juan Sabines' position up until said press conference, wherein he denied that there were any political prisoners in Chiapas. In the press conference the government laid out fruit and yogurt for the prisoners, hoping that the media would snap pictures of hunger strikers accepting food and reconciliation from the government. Refusing to be pawns in the government's public relations strategy, the released hunger strikers refused all government food and only ate once they were released and joined the plantón. Family members of the prisoners protested the press conference, repeatedly interrupting government officials with chants of, “We're not all here! Other prisoners are missing!” and “Sabines! Listen up! The prisoners don't sell out!”

Journalists and activists want the list of all 137 pardoned prisoners because they suspect that the government used this opportunity to free many paramilitary members.

The Struggle Continues

When the family members declared their plantón outside the Palacio de Gobierno, they agreed that none of them would leave until all of the protesting prisoners were free, even if some individual family members were released. Upon learning that some but not all of them would be released, the prisoners met and agreed that prisoners inside the jails would continue the plantónes and hunger strike, and those on the outside would immediately join the plantón outside the Palacio de Gobierno.

The Other Campaign in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, has also vowed to continue their protests until all prisoners are freed. Given the striking prisoners' grave health situation and the notice that this might be the last week to act before prisoners begin to die of starvation, the Other Campaign will hold a march and procession of coffins to the central plaza in San Cristobal on Thursday, April 3. The Other Campaign declared Thursday, April 3, an international day of action for the freedom of the striking prisoners and calls on activists outside Mexico to stage protests and actions at Mexican embassies and consulates.
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