Prisoners Freed in Acteal, Mexico Case Yet to Return Home


 

Christians bear no grudges, fear no threats from accusers.

TUXTLA GUTIERREZ, Mexico, October 12 (CDN) — Alonso Lopez Entzin, a Tzotzil-speaking Christian in Chiapas state, Mexico, spent 11 years and eight months in prison for a crime he did not commit. Accused of participating in the tragic “Acteal massacre” in December 1997 in which 45 persons died near San Cristobal de las Casas, he and more than 80 of his neighbors were summarily arrested and charged with the murders.On Aug. 12, the Federal Supreme Court of Mexico ordered that Lopez Entzin and 19 other indigenous men accused in the Acteal killings – 18 are Christian, including Lopez Entzin – be freed from El Amate Penal facility in Chiapas. Their release came as a surprise to him and his fellow prisoners, as well as to thousands of people in Mexico and around the world advocating their release.

Of the 18 Christians released, only five were Christians when they were arrested; the rest came to trust in Christ while in prison. At least 27 innocent men who were Christians at the time of their arrest remain in prison, according to advocacy organizations.

“I thank God that I have been granted freedom,” Lopez Entzin told Compass. “We are no longer imprisoned thanks to the power of God. There is no other person that has this kind of power, only God.”

The court is reviewing the cases of another 31 men convicted in connection with the massacre. Six more defendants will be granted new trials.

“Right now we see the first fruits of our prayers,” said Tomas Perez Mendez, another of the 20 freed prisoners. “We are confident in the Lord that the rest of the brothers are going to obtain their freedom as well.”

Lopez Entzin added that winning their freedom will not be easy.

“When we were inside El Amate, we began to pray, fast and glorify our Lord Jesus Christ. There are thousands and thousands of brothers who prayed for us inside the jail – thank God He answered those prayers,” he said through tears. “That’s why those brothers who remain behind in El Amate believe that if God’s will is done, they will soon be free.”

Most of the remaining Acteal inmates are evangelical Protestant Christians sentenced to 25- and 36-year prison terms. For years, human rights advocates and legal experts have presented legal arguments showing that the men were convicted on dubious evidence. The district court of the state of Chiapas, however, has consistently ruled against the defendants in appeals.

Attorneys for the defendants finally succeeded in bringing the case before the Federal Supreme Court in Mexico City. The justices who reviewed the case found clear violations of due process and on Aug. 12 overturned the convictions in a 4-1 decision.

The court ruling stated that the decision was not a determination of the guilt or innocence of the men, only that their constitutional rights had been violated during their arrest and conviction.

Though grateful to be free at last, Agustin Gomez Perez admitted that prison was “very difficult, very difficult indeed.”

“There inside the jail, everybody loses,” Gomez Perez said. “I saw it. Many lost their wives, their families, their homes. In the years I was in jail I lost my son. It was May 7, 2005. Twelve families were traveling in a truck to visit us in El Amate. They had an accident, and my 3-year-old son Juan Carlos was killed.”

Inmates expressed gratitude for church groups and international organizations that lent support to their families during their incarceration. Some groups supplied chicks, piglets and coffee plants for wives and children to raise on family plots. A volunteer team of doctors and nurses from Veracruz provides free treatment to prisoners and their dependents.

The prisoners said that one of the greatest helps was regular visits from their families. International Christian organizations raised money for bus fares and chartered vehicles to ensure that the prisoners’ families, who could not otherwise afford the travel, saw their husbands and fathers as often as possible.

Normalcy Not Returned

Despite being freed, the 20 men have yet to resume normal life with their families.

“When I left jail, I didn’t think I would be stuck half-way home,” Gomez Perez said. “I was thinking I would come home and see my wife and children. But we haven’t got there. We are left here half-way home.”

“Half-way home” for the released men is the market district in hot, bustling Tuxtla Gutierrez. They are living in makeshift half-way houses provided by the federal government, awaiting resettlement on land that state authorities have promised them.

Compass met with seven of the former inmates in a rented building they occupy with their wives, children and, in some cases, grandchildren. The families share windowless, sparsely furnished rooms with bare cement floors. Government food rations sustain them. While the half-way house is better than prison, it is nothing like the lush, green Chiapas mountains to which they long to return.

The men agreed to the relocation scheme because the farms they worked before going to prison have long since reverted to their heirs or, in some cases, neighbors. They welcome the assistance to get back on their feet financially.

Government officials, however, insist that the Acteal prisoners must relocate to new communities because they fear violent clashes will flare between them and their old rivals.

The seven freed men were unanimous in their opinion that such confrontations would not happen.

“In the first place, we do not agree with what the government is saying,” Gomez Perez said. “We hold no grudges against those who accused us. What happened, happened. We are not thinking vengeance.”

Perez Mendez agreed with Gomez Perez that the men feel no ill will against those who accused them and no resentment for what they suffered in jail.

“God does not want that we hold grudges or take vengeance against anyone,” he said. “There is not really much danger out there in our communities either. When people saw the news on television on Aug. 12 that we were getting out, they were happy. Well, now we hear that they found out we are not coming home, that we are here in Tuxtla, and some are saying, ‘Why don’t they come home? Tell them to come.’”

The Acteal prisoners have reason to hold grudges. Their attorneys say many of them were arrested in random police sweeps in the days following the massacre simply by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Public indignation over the brutal slayings, fueled by numerous inflammatory press releases from Las Abejas, a civic group whose members were primary targets in the massacre, as well as by the left-leaning human rights organization Fray Bartolomé de las Casas, swelled to fever pitch in December 1997.

Authorities responded by arresting dozens of “suspects,” without evidence or warrants, to quell the outcry.

Some Acteal defendants found themselves accused of the crime by allies of the rebel Zapatista guerrilla army. A land dispute between Zapatista sympathizers and opponents of the rebels intensified during the waning months of 1997, claiming the lives of 18 indigenous men, the majority of them Protestant Christians. Attorneys say indifferent law enforcement officers failed even to investigate the murders, let alone arrest the perpetrators.

Frustrated with the authorities’ foot-dragging and desperate to defend themselves against further aggression, nine indigenous young men armed themselves and confronted their enemies on Dec. 22, 1997. The ensuing firefight and subsequent massacre at the Catholic hermitage in Acteal ended with 45 dead, many of them women and children who were participating in an Abejas-sponsored program that day.

Five of the nine armed men have confessed to participating in the Acteal shootings and insist they acted alone. Those five are serving prison terms in El Amate. Two others were arrested and released because they were minors at the time of the crime. Two more remain at large and, ironically, have reportedly come under the protection of the Zapatistas.

Las Abejas and its allies continue to assert that that the Acteal killings were carried out by “paramilitary” units equipped and assisted by the Mexican army. With the passage of time, many of those who hold this thesis have admitted that most of the Acteal prisoners did not, in fact, participate in the shooting. Nevertheless, they insist that until the “intellectual authors” of the atrocity come forward and confess, not one prisoner – even though innocent of the crime – should be released.

That strange logic has helped to keep more than 50 innocent men in prison for nearly 12 years.

“It is certain that we suffered an injustice for nearly 12 years,” Perez Mendez said. “A lot of people tell us that we are guilty. But as far as we are concerned, God knows all. We did not commit that crime.

He implored Christians to pray for the innocent men who have yet to be released.

Pray as well for we who are not at home in our communities,” he said. “I ask that you not forget us.”Report from Compass Direct News 

PAKISTAN: MUSLIMS ATTACK 110 HOMES OF CHRISTIANS


Beating of field worker leads to hatchet attack on his family, then on all village Christians.

LAHORE, Pakistan, July 3 (Compass Direct News) – After a Muslim beat a Christian field worker for asking him to let him pass on Tuesday (June 30), a cleric in a village near here used a mosque loudspeaker to announce a call to attack Christians that resulted in more than 500 Muslims ransacking and looting at least 110 houses.

With the mosque falsely broadcasting the accusation that the Christian had blasphemed Islam, the Muslim recruits rampaged through Kasur district’s Bahmaniwala village, breaking down gates, wrecking and plundering homes and in some cases beating Christian women. They set various items ablaze including vehicles, though Compass found fire damage to homes was minimal.

“We don’t even have potable water, as they have damaged the turbine,” villager Zareena Bibi told Compass. “We knew about the incident, but could never imagine that they would wreak such devastation. They have not spared a single house here.”

Outraged that the lower-class Christian field worker on his tractor had asked the Muslim to move out of his way, 15 to 20 Muslims had previously mounted a hatchet attack on the family of the field worker, 37-year-old Sardar Masih, wounding his brother’s head, family members told Compass.

Masih told Compass that after his family members had sought treatment at a local hospital – where medical staff members denied them local anesthesia for their stitches because they were Christians – they learned that a call to gather had been issued from a local mosque regarding the altercation.

“We were told that in that meeting they decided to blame Christians for blasphemy of their Islamic religion,” Masih told Compass. The Muslims in the meeting, he added, then schemed with Muslim cleric Muhammad Latif of Maanwala, who appealed from the mosque loudspeaker for villagers to gather to “teach Christians an exemplary lesson.”

Latif, who heads a vigilante group called Sunni Force, also managed to recruit Muslims from other hamlets, Masih said. Soon the number of Muslims swelled to 500 to 800, according to the eyewitnesses.

The ensuing attack began with the breaking of electricity meters at 110 homes, cutting their power, area Christians said.

Damages and Threats

Masih told Compass the triggering incident began when he and his 10-year-old son, Waqas Masih, were returning from the fields on a tractor at 7 p.m.

“When we entered the village, Muhammad Hussein and his nephew had parked their motorbike in the middle of the road,” Masih said. “I requested them to get it aside, and Hussein said that he did not know how a ‘sweeper’ [chuhra, a derogatory term designating lower-class Christians] could order him. I was with my son, and I only requested them to let us go as we are getting late.”

He said Hussein was drunk from a nearby wedding celebration.

“I only made the request, and then they got up on the tractor and dragged me down and began beating me,” Masih said. “Then my son ran home and told my family members.”

Masih’s brother, 32-year-old Ashraf Masih, told Compass that he was at home when Waqat arrived out of breath saying that two men were beating his father. Ashraf Masih and brothers Mushtaq Masih, 35, Tariq Masih, 25, and Shahbaz Masih, along with their cousins Shafiq and Vikram Masih and 65-year-old father Chanan Masih, rushed to the site. By the time they arrived, Ashraf Masih said, a large crowd had gathered, but they were only exchanging harsh words and the conflict was cooling down.

“I told Muhammad Hussein that whoever he is, he has no right to lord it over them,” Ashraf Masih told Compass, adding that as they were leaving Hussein asked how could chuhras talk to them that way.

After the brief encounter, Ashraf Masih said, they went home back, not knowing that Hussein and his cohorts were planning to attack them. After half an hour, he said, Hussein and 15 to 20 other men armed with sticks and hatchets launched their assault on their house.

“They broke the door and smaller walls, and they beat my father, my mother and paternal uncle,” he said.

An assailant delivered a blow with hatchet to the head of his brother Mushtaq Masih, Ashraf Masih said, and blood gushed out. Other brothers also received hatchet wounds.

“When we realized that our life was in danger, we recklessly fought and made them flee,” he said. “Three of their men were also injured, but I don’t know their names.”

Afterward village official Muhammad Shafiq went to the family and warned them not to go to police, he said.

“We followed his advice, but he cheated on us,” Ashraf Masih said. “He took the Muslim party to the police station, where they got an FIR [First Information Report] registered, and then Shafiq and Manawala Deputy Mayor [Zulfiqar Ali] Bhutto took them to a hospital to get a medico-legal report.”

The family learned 90 minutes after the altercation that the Muslim assailants had gone to the police station, he said.

“Then we also rushed to the Sadar police station, but the police told us that an FIR had already been registered of the incident so they could not write another report,” Ashraf Masih said. “Then we went to Kasur Civil Hospital to obtain medical treatment, but when we entered the hospital they were already sitting there, and with them were Muhammad Shafiq and Dr. Bhutto.”

The injured Masih family members were shocked, he said, to learn that Shafiq had brought the assailants to the hospital but had told them not to go to the police station or the hospital for treatment.

After waiting for hours for medical treatment with no one paying them any attention, he said, at 5 a.m. their wounds were stitched without local anesthesia.

“The medical staff treated us like animals, and even made us sit outside all night,” Ashraf Masih said.

After the received basic first-aid treatment, Ashraf Masih said, his brother Sardar Masih suggested that they not go home for a few days, as the police had filed the Muslim assailants’ FIR. “Only our women were at home when our house was attacked the next day,” he said.

In spite of the assault on the family the day of the triggering incident, local Christians said no one foresaw the attack on the community on Wednesday (July 1).

“We thought that it was just an ordinary clash and would settle down with the passage of time, but they not only came back and attacked us, they then did havoc to all Christian families,” said Chanan Masih, the brothers’ father, adding that there was no justification for the attack on all the Christian villagers. “We used to visit their houses and even respected their Muslim call to prayer.”

On that day most of the men were away harvesting crops and others had gone to the Lahore Vegetable Market to sell them, while still others were busy getting Christians bailed out in the case filed against them. Area Christians said that most of their homes were therefore defenseless.

The Muslim mobs entered homes where mostly women and children were present and in some instances beat the women, local Christians said. In other instances, they said, women ran up to their roofs or to nearby fields and hid themselves to save their honor and lives.

“In one sad instance, a young girl who was taking bath got so nervous that she ran to the fields stark naked,” said one local Christian. “Such was the perilous state after 15 to 20 men entered each Christian house after breaking down gates.”

Throughout the violence that began about 7:30 p.m. and lasted two hours, area Christians said, the assailants threatened to throw all Christians out of the village.

Local resident Zareena Bibi told Compass that the looters stole from her son, Vikram Bashir, money from recent crop sales – 200,000 rupees (US$2,470) – along with 70,000 rupees (US$865) in cash gathered at his marriage the previous week. The attackers also stole a gold ornament from his bride worth 30,000 rupees (US$370).

Naseem Masih told Compass that her family had gold and more than 200,000 rupees looted. Amid broken glass, she pointed toward damages to two doors, a window grill, a fan, crockery and kitchen utensils that could no longer be used. Her mother-in-law said that they made her remove her gold earrings.

“My son got married only three months ago,” said one area Christian. “They took out new clothes from trunks and threw them on the floor so that they may not remain useful. They also gathered such articles and put them on fire. They were shouting that they would throw out these ‘sweepers’ from here.”

Sardar Masih said that his family’s house was especially hard-hit during the violence and looting. The attackers not only damaged his tractor, he said, but they put sandy soil in its engine that rendered it nonfunctional. The tractor was the main source of income for the family, he added, and without it they were left virtually unemployed.

“They have tried to make us completely poor and without any home,” he said.

Expel and Ostracize

Similarly, Naseem Masih told Compass that the assailants had burned their 10 donkey carts. And a few area Christians also reported that some families had been deprived of the dowries they had accumulated over the years for their daughters yet to be given in marriage.

Local resident Allah Ditta told Compass that he had gone to Lahore Market to sell crops.

“We were informed over the phone that Muslims had attacked us,” he said, adding that the assailants beat his wife and children and also looted 100,000 rupees (US$1,235) from his home.

Local Christians said that on Wednesday (July 1), at about 2 p.m. several young Muslims gathered and began chanting slogans calling for the expulsion of Christians, saying, “We will not let them live here.” By 2:30 p.m., the area mosque was announcing that no shop should provide anything to Christians and that they should totally ostracize them.

“This announcement was made by Maulvi Latif,” one Christian said. Maulvi is an honorific referring to an expert in Islamic law.

Another Christian said that Latif had twice before created problems for Christians, though on a smaller scale. Area Christians and Muslims have lived next to each other peaceably for more than a century and had good relations, village Christians said.

“There has never been any such incident before,” said one Christian.

When Compass entered the village and asked about the conflicts this week, Muslims claimed complete ignorance of them.

Talks and Restoration

The Community Development Initiative (CDI) advocacy group is facilitating talks between the two sides, though mistrust still runs high in the area, said CDI Research Officer Napoleon Qayyum. He said the CDI requested that Water and Power and Power Development Authority (WAPDA) Managing Director Tahir Basharat Cheema ensure that electricity be restored to the houses of Christians.

After the request, electricity was provisionally restored to several Christian families until new electricity meters are installed, he said, adding that WAPDA has begun installing new electricity meters at no cost as well. Qayyum said that Mushtaq Masih had requested that the CDI take up the case of the brothers, and that the organization would provide legal assistance to others who were injured with the help of the American Center of Law and Justice (ACLJ).

CDI is also providing meals to all 110 families, he said.

“Our partner, ACLJ, is constantly monitoring the situation and is providing its full support in this difficult time,” Qayyum said. Several Christian organizations were visiting the area and providing help to the injured, he said, adding that the only area church building was unaffected by the assault.

Muslim Leaders Appalled

Among Muslim leaders, Pakistan Peoples Party Member of Provincial Assembly (MPA) Chaudhry Ahmed Ali Tohlu told Compass that the culprits must be brought to justice. Tohlu asserted that Muslims would be able to repeat such violence only over his dead body and those of other like-minded Muslim leaders.

“I am born in a Muslim family, but today I am feeling bad because of what my fellow Muslims have done,” he said.

Member of National Assembly Sheikh Wasim of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz said, “Christians are our brothers and sisters, and what has been done to them is very unjust, and being a Muslim I apologize to the Christian community in my capacity.”

Divisional Police Officer Kasur Sultan said the violence “is a shameful incident,” and Union Council Nazim Sardar Fakhir said, “We all are ashamed, and those who instigated the matter should be brought to book.”

Human Rights and Minority Affairs Provincial Minister Kamran Michael said that Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif had told him over the phone to go to the village and express solidarity with the Christian community. He pledged that all damages would be covered by the government.

“Our religion teaches peace, so we should forgive the culprits, but the government will take action against the culprits,” Michael said.

MPA Joel Amir Sahotra condemned the looting that characterized the attack.

In the aftermath of the violence, police, civil administration, politicians and Christians of the area met, CDI’s Qayyum said, and established a 12-member committee to keep watch and inform authorities of any wrongdoing.

“Till the time things are normalized, anyone found fueling the matter would be punished, and the committee is responsible for informing the police,” he said. “After the meeting, Deputy Mayor Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and I went together in the mosque and Bhutto made a public announcement on the loudspeaker.”

The deputy mayor announced from the mosque that what took place was shameful and that all the shops must resume selling everything to the Christian community, he said.

Area Christians, however, said they remained fearful of new outbreaks of violence.

Report from Compass Direct News