MEXICO: CHRISTIANS JAILED FOR ACTEAL MASSACRE WIN RELEASE


Supreme Court rules their rights were violated; violence threatened in Chiapas.

MEXICO CITY, Aug. 13 (Compass Direct News) – At least 20 men accused of participating in a massacre in Chiapas state in December 1997 left prison early this morning – amid concerns over threats of violence at their home communities near San Cristobal de las Casas – following a Supreme Court ruling yesterday that their convictions violated fundamental norms of justice.

The release of the 20 men, most of them evangelical Christians, came after Mexico’s Supreme Court ruled in a 4-1 decision that they had been convicted in unfair trials in which prosecutors fabricated testimony and illegally obtained evidence. Area evangelicals view the imprisoned Christians as caught between survivors clamoring for convictions and government police and military forces eager to shift blame away from their minions following the Dec. 22, 1997 killing of 45 civilians in Acteal village.

“Acteal is a double tragedy,” attorney Javier Cruz Angulo reportedly said after the ruling. “On the one hand you have an abominable massacre, and on the other more than 50 human beings imprisoned without proofs.”

The court will review the cases of another 31 men convicted in connection with the massacre, and six more will be given new trials, according to news reports.

The identities of those released were not immediately known. As 32 of those imprisoned for the crime were Christians and another 15 received Christ while in prison, most of the previous total of 57 prisoners are Christians.

“In prison, the majority of us converted to the Presbyterian faith,” Tomas Perez Mendez, 60, told El Universal before the Supreme Court decision; at press time it was not known if he was among those released.

He told the Mexican newspaper that he bears no resentment even though his imprisonment led to illnesses that contributed to the deaths of family members. “My wife is ill, my father and one brother died from sorrow at seeing us here in prison . . . I no longer feel anger or resentment against those who accused me, and I plan to preach.”

Authorities had told a total of 57 prisoners that they would be freed after their paperwork was reviewed, a source in Chiapas told Compass.

“Naturally, those prisoners who had been informed of their impending release last week are extremely disappointed, as well wondering if they will ever be released,” said the source, who requested anonymity.

Two brothers, Pablo and Juan Hernandez Perez, reportedly said that they have no home to return to; their house was burned to the ground while they were in prison. Another hoping for release, Javier Vazquez Luna, told El Universal he played no part in the crime, and that indeed his father was one of the victims of the massacre.

The Supreme Court justices stated that they were not ruling on the guilt or innocence of the men, only on the violation of due process.

“During the investigation, their constitutional rights were violated,” the court said in a statement. “The majority of cases … were based on the use of illegally obtained evidence.”

In recent months relatives of the imprisoned men ratcheted up citizen campaigns seeking their freedom, backed by many others. For several years Presbyterian churches have carried banners outside their buildings requesting justice for those wrongly convicted in the Acteal violence. The Chiapas government had said it could do nothing because the case was under federal jurisdiction.

Pressure to reopen the case has intensified each December with remembrances of the massacre. In spite of intense political pressure to the contrary, the Supreme Court finally agreed to review the facts.

Threats of Violence

Amid statements by survivors of the Acteal crime that tensions could heighten in the area – and a grim warning from a former leader of Las Abejas, a supposedly non-violent group sympathetic to rebel militants whose members were killed in the massacre – defense attorneys and family members of the released men appealed to authorities to provide security and guarantee social peace.

“A former leader of the Abejas made a public declaration that if the men returned to their homes, the Abejas would be waiting for them, and the released prisoners would be repaid for the pain they caused 12 years ago,” the Chiapas source told Compass. “Tensions exist, and with statements like he made, the government is nervous about letting the men return to their homes due to possible violence. At this point, there are still no violent actions, but the threat of an outbreak is real.”

At press time authorities had prevented the released men from returning to the Acteal area, keeping them in a hotel in Berriozabal after loading them onto a truck through a back door of the El Amate prison at 3:35 a.m., El Universal reported.

Initially the prison director refused to see the men’s lawyers when they arrived at El Amate prison in Chiapas near midnight with orders for their release, the Compass source said.

“When he finally relented and met with the lawyers, it was only under extreme pressure from the Mexico City lawyers who refused to be dissuaded,” the source said. “There was an extended time of wrangling before the warden eventually released the prisoners, only under threat of returning to the Supreme Court and the Human Rights Commission about his intransigence.”

The released men had been promised there would be a government-paid bus waiting to take them to San Cristobal de las Casas, he said, but instead they were taken to the hotel in Berriozabal.

“The men were to meet with government officials today in Tuxtla, and we are still awaiting word on their arrival in San Cristobal after some five hours of waiting,” the source said. “It appears there are delaying tactics, hindrances and lack of cooperation in the entire release process.”

Some of the released men were able to meet with family members, and most expressed desire to return to the Acteal area, but the prison director said that authorities had determined that it was not safe for them to go back to their communities, according to El Universal. Authorities have reportedly proposed the possibility of providing them land parcels to avoid their returning to the area of the original conflict.

The evangelical Christians convicted were serving 25- or 36-year sentences and had exhausted all appeals. Some of them say they were arrested because rebel sympathizers with whom they had been embroiled in years of land disputes named them. Others said they were simply nearby when authorities made random round-ups.

Of the 34 men originally convicted, one died in prison and another had been released as a minor.

The family of one prisoner, Agustin Gomez Perez, tried to visit him in 2005. He told El Universal that they had an accident on the way, killing one small child and putting his wife in the hospital for 20 days – leaving their other five children without parents during that period.

Controversy over who killed the 45 people has revolved around whether there was a “massacre” by numerous “paramilitary” villagers or a “confrontation” between a handful of neighboring peasants and Zapatista National Liberation Army rebels. Historian Héctor Aguilar Camín has argued that there was both a confrontation and a massacre, with some overlap between each, but that they were largely separate incidents.

Five confessed killers have testified that they and four others engaged only Zapatista militia to avenge the death of a relative, while the federal attorney general’s office charged that at least 50 pro-government “paramilitaries” descended on a relief camp hermitage full of displaced peasants bent on killing and robbing them. The testimonies of the five confessed killers – four others remain at large – agree that the nine avengers were the only ones involved in the firefights, and that the decision to attack the Zapatistas was a private family decision made with no involvement from government authorities.

They also agree that the sole motive was to avenge the assassination of a relative – the latest of 18 unprosecuted murders by Zapatistas over the previous three months, according to Aguilar Camín.

Government prosecutors unduly dismissed much of the testimony of the five confessed avengers, Aguilar Camín wrote in a 2007 article for Nexos, noting that the killers testified that state security forces were nearby and did nothing. He highlights the judicial irregularities of the round-up and conviction of the peasants – apprehensions without evidence or warrant, charging 83 people with homicide when only 45 people were killed and lack of translators and attorneys for the suspects, Tzotzil Mayans who did not know Spanish.

The Supreme Court pointed out those violations in its ruling. Arturo Farela Gutierrez, head of the National Association of Evangelical Christian Churches, praised the court decision.

“We are in the presence of a court different from that of 12 years ago,” he said, according to El Universal. “The court is strengthened without fear of anything or anyone, and it’s the court that democratic Mexico needs.”

Report from Compass Direct News 

CHRISTIANS CONCERN: RELIGIOUS FREEDOM TO BE DEFINED IN AUSTRALIA


The World Evangelical Alliance is concerned about growing evidence of a fundamentalist religious lobby in Australia supporting same-sex relationships, stem-cell research, and abortion. Anti-hate speech legislation in Australia would put a choke collar on anyone who spoke against these practices, including Christians. The Human Rights Commission is launching a national review of what Australians believe freedom of religion means, reports MNN.

Commissioner of race discrimination Tom Calama says that a balance needs to be struck between the freedom to practice a religion and not pushing those beliefs on the rest of society. He says that people in Australia need to understand what religious freedom means in the 21st century.

“Does religious belief influence policies being determined in any country, particularly in our country?” he said.

Law in Australia provides for freedom of religion, but in October 2003 hate speech legislation affected two pastors giving a seminar on Islam. A civil suit was filed with the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal, alleging defamation of Muslims during a seminar the pastors had given on Islam. The Islamic Council sought an apology, retraction of the comments in question, and compensation.

“These seminars largely consisted of opening the Koran and reading from [it],” said Jeff King, president of the International Christian Concern. “There was Saudi money that went into Australia; they hired the best lawyers in the country and sued these guys for defamation.”

The pastors’ lawyers argued that the complaint was outside the tribunal’s jurisdiction and that it infringed on the Constitutional right of freedom of expression. Although the pastors were convicted, the case was appealed and later settled after mediation.

Calama says that in a secular, multi-faith society, people sometimes have different expectations of what freedom of religion means and how the law should reflect those beliefs. People are invited to make submissions concerning their views of freedom of religion until the end of January.

Report from the Christian Telegraph

MALAYSIA: GOVERNMENT ISSUES DEMAND TO CATHOLIC NEWSPAPER


Letter warns weekly of potential ‘sterner actions;’ suspension possible.

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia, August 21 (Compass Direct News) – The Ministry of Home Affairs has issued a warning letter to a Catholic weekly demanding an explanation for articles that did not “focus” on religion and for a report that allegedly degraded Islam entitled, “America and Jihad – where do they stand?”

Father Lawrence Andrew, editor of the Herald, revealed on August 10 that the ministry had issued the “show-cause” letter accusing the newspaper of breaking publication rules on July 16.

In an article on August 14, the Sun quoted Minister of Home Affairs Syed Hamid Albar as restricting religious writing to “questions on rituals, adherence to God, followers and anything related to your divine mission.” Despite his apparently broad definition, the minister said mixing religion with politics “can create a lot of misunderstandings.”

The ministry’s letter reportedly warned that it “would not hesitate to take sterner action” if the Herald repeats its alleged offenses. According to The Associated Press (AP), an unnamed ministry official on August 11 said the Herald must explain satisfactorily why it ran the articles and pledge to stick by the rules or risk suspension.

Fr. Andrew told Compass the letter did not specify exactly what the “sterner actions” would be. He has yet to reply to the ministry, since the letter did not specify a date by which the newspaper had to respond.

The letter is the latest in a series that the ministry has issued to the publisher this year. Prior to the show-cause letter, the publisher had received two other “advisory” and “cautionary” letters from the ministry for publishing on current affairs and politics and for allegedly denigrating Islam.

The Herald is a multilingual newspaper published by the Catholic Church of Malaysia with a circulation of 13,000 and an estimated readership of 50,000. The publication is sold in churches and is not available from newsstands.

In his editorial in the latest edition of the Herald (August 17), Fr. Andrew highlighted the upcoming Permatang Pauh by-election, which he called a “serious” election since the outcome would determine the direction of the country for the next four years and beyond. He urged readers to pray that God may grant courage and wisdom to the voters to “choose a suitable and trustworthy candidate.”

The editorial makes no mention of Anwar Ibrahim, adviser to the People’s Justice Party, who is trying to make a comeback to Parliament in the election.

In anticipation of this editorial, a ministry official was quoted in the Star on August 13 as saying the then-yet to be published editorial could earn the Herald another warning letter and possibly suspension.

 

Defense of Newspaper

The Herald maintains it has not overstepped its boundaries.

According to the AP story of August 11, Fr. Andrew defended the Herald’s stance by saying it is “normal for [Christians] to have an ethical interpretation of current events and politics.”

In an editorial in the August 10 edition of the weekly, the editor added that in response to a previous letter from the ministry, he had informed it that no definition of religion was provided in the application form for renewing its printing permit, and that neither is there a definition of religion in the Federal Constitution. He asked the ministry to point out where the newspaper had gone wrong but has yet to receive a reply.

Bishop Paul Tan Chee Ing, chairman of the Christian Federation of Malaysia, said in an August 15 statement that the letters were “unjustified and an infringement of the right to circulate news within one’s own religious community – a right guaranteed under our Federal Constitution (Article 11).” He called on the ministry to unconditionally withdraw the letters.

“Christians believe that all of life – in its political, economic, social, cultural and religious aspects – come under the sovereignty of God,” he said, and therefore it is necessary to write on such matters to educate Christians to discern God’s will and purpose.

The Catholic Lawyers’ Society issued a statement on Saturday (August 18) in support of the Herald. The society’s president, Mabel Sabastian, called on the ministry to withdraw its letters and maintain the Herald’s publishing permit.

Sabastian argued that “interpretation of what constitutes religious matters should be left to the leaders and adherents of the faith,” and that the government ministry “is not in a position to dictate to Catholics the scope of their religion.”

The Human Rights Commission (Suhakam) reportedly expressed concern over the possible suspension of the Herald, saying it would be deemed as an infringement on freedom of expression.

Late last year, the government issued a series of warnings to the Herald trying to prohibit the publisher from using the word “Allah” in referring to God in the Malay language section of its multilingual newspaper. The government feared use of the word would cause confusion among the country’s majority-Muslim population.

The publisher, however, maintained that it had a right to use the word and has sued the government over the issue. The lawsuit is pending hearing in the courts.

Report from Compass Direct News

PAKISTAN: CUSTODY OF CHILD HINGES ON MEDICAL REPORT


Attorney, relative of Christian parents fear they are likely to lose custody of daughters.

ISTANBUL, August 12 (Compass Direct News) – Amid pressure from radical Muslim clerics, a medical board is expected to determine the age of a Christian Pakistani girl allegedly forced to convert to Islam. The medical report on 13-year-old Saba Masih, who married a Muslim man, is due by her Aug. 20 custody hearing.

The custody battle over her and her 10-year-old sister, Aneela Masih – two girls raised as Christians who were kidnapped and allegedly converted to Islam – may be decided on their testimonies even though they contradict court evidence. Saba Masih, married off to the Muslim man after the kidnapping, has twice claimed in court that she is 17 years old – Pakistani law requires females to be at least 16 to marry without permission of legal guardians.

At a hearing last Wednesday (Aug. 6), the Lahore High Court’s Multan branch ruled that the district medical board of Multan will examine Saba Masih to determine if she is old enough to marry of her own volition. Aneela Masih claims to have embraced Islam, though as a minor she cannot legally do so.

The court has refused to accept the girls’ birth certificates or baptism records as evidence for their ages. Under Pakistani law a minor cannot marry regardless of his or her religion.

The two sisters were kidnapped on June 26 while traveling to visit their uncle in Sarwar Shaheed, northwest of Multan. Saba Masih was married to Amjad Ali, a Muslim, the next day, and the kidnappers filed for custody of the girls on June 28 based on their conversion.

In a July 12 ruling, District and Sessions Court Judge Main Naeem Sardar awarded custody of the girls to the kidnappers based on Saba Masih’s testimony that she was 17 and had converted to Islam. He did not accept the girls’ birth certificates as evidence of their ages.

In a July 29 hearing, Judge Saghir Ahmed said he did not believe the girls converted to Islam of their own volition and ordered them to be sent to a government women’s shelter, so that they could think freely until the Aug. 6 hearing.

At that hearing, however, both girls claimed to have embraced Islam, and Saba Masih claimed once again to be 17 and thus able to marry. Judge Saeed Ejaz ordered that she be sent to a medical examination to determine her real age.

Muslim clerics are already threatening the medical board, claiming that since the girls have embraced Islam they should not be returned to the custody of their Christian parents, said Khalid Raheel, the kidnapped girls’ uncle.

“Muslim clerics are threatening the judge. [Saba] said she was 17 because she was threatened,” he said. “[The judge] told the medical officer to get her age checked by the medical board … [but] Muslim clerics are threatening the medical board.”

The medical board will submit its report at the next hearing on Aug. 20.

Rashid Rehman, a lawyer representing the Christian parents, said that if the report says Saba Masih has reached puberty or is between the ages of 16 and 17, then the court will likely award her Muslim husband custody over her – even though her marriage is invalid since she is a minor.

“The law has been amended, and no minor can be contracted into marriage with [guardian or parental] permission or without permission,” he said. “But because of religious pressure, the court can decide otherwise.”

The court cannot grant custody of Aneela Masih to the kidnappers since both sides agree she is 10. Because she reiterated at the August 6 hearing that she had converted to Islam, however, it is not clear if she will be returned to her Christian parents.

According to a strict interpretation of Islamic law, a non-Muslim cannot have custody of a Muslim child.

“I think Aneela will not be given to the parents but sent to a shelter or child protection care bureau,” said Rehman, a member of the Human Rights Commission in Pakistan. “She can’t reside with the parents, who are Christians.”

After the hearing, the sisters were returned to the government-run Dar-Ul-Aman women’s shelter, where they have stayed since July 29. They have been forbidden from seeing their parents or the Muslim kidnappers.

 

Threats Continue

The kidnappers, however, continue to intimidate the girls, said Raheel, their uncle.

“Even in the women’s shelter run by the government, they keep on calling them on the phone,” he said. “They keep on threatening them there also. That’s why they can’t change their minds.”

He said the kidnappers are threatening the girls’ parents to stop trying to regain custody of their daughters.

“They told them not to go to court, or they would kill them,” Raheel said.

Attorney Rehman said the courthouse at the Aug. 20 hearing could be a charged environment, since the local press has published stories advocating the kidnappers’ claims.

Raheel noted that the local Urdu papers, Jang and Xpress, quoted the kidnappers as saying the Christian family was threatening them for the return of their daughters even though they had freely chosen to become Muslims.

A priest at the Masih family’s parish known only as Father Asab said many Muslims have expressed their sympathy to the Christian family but are afraid of speaking out against the perpetrators.

“Many Muslims are also with us, those who understand,” he said. “But the majority is afraid to tell the truth. In this case many people in our area, many Muslims, know that those who kidnapped the girls … have a bad name in society. But even Muslim families are frightened to tell the truth.”

Report from Compass Direct News