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 


Muslim zealots jail convert, burn home of another; in Somalia, a mother and daughter raped.

DADAAB, Kenya, December 10 (Compass Direct News) – A Somali Christian put in a refugee camp police cell here for defending his family against Islamic zealots has been released after Christians helped raise the 20,000 Kenya shilling fine (US$266) that a camp “court” demanded for his conversion dishonoring Islam and its prophet, Muhammad.

But for Salat Sekondo Mberwa of Mogadishu, the war-torn capital of Somalia, this was not the highest price he has had to pay for leaving Islam. A few weeks ago Muslim zealots shot Mberwa in the shoulder and left him for dead, and he and other refugees told of hired Muslim gangs in Somalia raping and killing converts, denying them access to water and, in the refugee camp, burning their homes.

“I thank God that I am alive,” a timid and worried Mberwa said.

At about 9 a.m. on Oct. 13, five Muslim youths knocked on Mberwa’s sheet-iron gate in the refugee camp, one of three that is home to 572,000 refugees from Somalia, Ethiopia and Sudan in northeastern Kenya’s Dadaab town.

“I refused to open the gate, and they started cutting the iron sheets,” he said. “They were shouting and calling me names, saying I was the enemy of the Islamic religion, and that I would pay the ultimate price for propagating a different religion. They threatened to kill me if I did not open the door for them.”

With him inside the house was his 22-year-old son, Nur Abdurahman, he said.

“As the assailants forced their way into our room, I whispered to my son to prepare for war,” he said. “While defending ourselves, I hit one of the young men whom I later came to know as Abdul Kadir Haji.”

They soon overpowered the assailants, he said, and the gang ran away, only to return three hours later accompanied by Muslim elders and the police. They arrested Mberwa and detained him at a camp police cell.

After his release, Mberwa said, he was resting inside his house on Nov. 26 at around 6 p.m. when he heard people shouting his name and swearing to “teach him a lesson” for embarrassing them by having left Islam. Once again he decided to lock himself in, and as before the attackers forced their way in.

“I was trying to escape through the window when one of them fired a gun, but the bullet narrowly missed me,” he told Compass. “Then I heard another gun fire, and I felt a sharp pain on my left shoulder. I fell down. Thinking that I was dead, they left.”

Relatives immediately arrived and gave first aid to the bleeding Mberwa. They arranged treatment for him in Mogadishu, after which he was relocated to Dadaab for recovery.

The officer in charge of Dadaab refugee camp, Omar Dadho, told Compass that authorities were doing their best to safeguard freedom of worship.

“We cannot guarantee the security of the minority Christians among a Muslim-dominated population totaling more than 99 percent,” Dadho said. “But we are doing our best to safeguard their freedom of worship. Their leader, Salat, should visit our office so that their matter and complaints can be looked at critically, as well as to try to look for a long-lasting solution.”

A bitter and exhausted Mberwa told Compass he was not about to give in.

“What will these Muslims benefit if they completely wipe away my family?” he said. “My son has just arrived from Bossaso with a serious bullet wound on his left hand. It’s sad. Anyhow we are happy he is alive.”

In November 2005, leaving behind his job at an international relief and development agency in Mogadishu, Mberwa had fled with his family to Dadaab after Muslim extremists murdered a relative, Mariam Mohammed Hassan, allegedly for distributing Bibles. At that time his oldest son, 26-year-old Abdi Salat, had gone to Bossaso, in Somalia’s autonomous Puntland region.

Situated in a hostile environment with high temperatures and little or no vegetation cover, Dadaab refugee camps house refugees from Somalia, Ethiopia and Sudan: 150,000 people in the Dagahaley camp, 152,000 in Ifo and 270,000 in Hagadhera.

Where Mberwa lives as a refugee, Muslim zealots burned a house belonging to his son-in-law, Mohammed Jeylani, also a member of his camp fellowship.

“It was on Oct. 28 when we saw smoke coming out of my house,” said Jeylani. “Some neighbors managed to salvage my two young children who were inside the house. The people managed to put out the fire before the house was razed. I have been contemplating reporting the culprits to the police, but I do fear for my life.”

Somali Christians cannot openly conduct their fellowship at the relief camps. They meet in their houses and at times at the Dadaab police post among friendly Christian soldiers and public servants.

“They have to be careful since they are constantly being monitored by their fellow Somalis,” said Moses Lokong, an officer at Kenya’s Department of Land Reclamation in neighboring Garissa town.


Death and Agony in Somalia

Somali refugees in Kenya commonly have loved ones in their home country who have suffered from violence. On July 18 a Muslim gang killed a relative of Mberwa, Nur Osman Muhiji, in Anjel village, 30 kilometers from Kismayo, Somalia.

The church in Dadaab had sent Muhiji to the port of Kismayo on June 15 to smuggle out Christians endangered by Muslim extremists there. Word became known of Muhiji’s mission, and on his way back a gang of 10 Muslim extremists stopped his vehicle, dragged him to some bushes and stabbed him to death.

Fearing for their lives, the Christians he was smuggling struggled to remain quiet as Muhiji wailed from the knife attack near Anjel village at about 6:30 p.m.

At the Dadaab refugee camp, Muhiji’s widow, Hussein Mariam Ali, told Compass, “Life without Osman is now meaningless – how will I survive here all alone without him? I wish I had gotten children with him.”

Another refugee in Dadaab, Binti Ali Bilal, recounted an attack in Lower Juba, Somalia. The 40-year-old mother of 10 children was fetching firewood with her 23-year-old daughter, Asha Ibrahim Abdalla, on April 15 in an area called Yontoy when a group from the Muslim insurgent group al Shabaab approached them. Yontoy is 25 kilometers (15 miles) from Kismayo.

For some time the local community had suspected that she and her family were Christians, Bilal told Compass. Neighbors with members from al Shabaab, believed to have links with al Qaeda, confronted them, she said.

“They asked whether we were Christians – it was very difficult for us to deny,” Bilal said. “So we openly said that we were Christians. They began beating us. My son who is 10 years old ran away screaming. My daughter then was six months pregnant. They hit me at the ribs before dragging us into the bush. They raped us repeatedly and held us captive for five days.”

The Muslim extremists left them there to die, she said.

“My daughter began to bleed – thank God my husband [Ibrahim Abdalla Maidula] found us alive after the five days of agony,” she said. “We were taken to Kismayo for treatment before escaping to Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya on May 5. My daughter gave birth to a sickly baby, and she still suffers after-birth related diseases.”

Bilal’s daughter told Compass that she still feels pain in her abdomen and chest. She was weak and worried that she may have contracted HIV, or human immunodeficiency virus.  

Report from Compass Direct News