Court sentences him to three years on dubious charge of ‘attempt to promote civil unrest.’
NEW DELHI, October 18 (CDN) — A court in predominantly Buddhist Bhutan has sentenced a Christian to three years in prison for “attempting to promote civil unrest” by screening films on Christianity.
A local court in Gelephu convicted Prem Singh Gurung, a 40-year-old ethnic Nepalese citizen from Sarpang district in south Bhutan, on Oct. 6, according to the government-run daily Kuensel.
Gurung was arrested four months ago after local residents complained that he was showing Christian films in Gonggaon and Simkharkha villages in Jigmecholing block. Gurung invited villagers to watch Nepali movies, and between each feature he showed films on Christianity.
Government attorneys could not prove “beyond reasonable doubt” that Gurung promoted civil unrest, and therefore “he was charged with an attempt to promote civil unrest,” the daily reported.
Gurung was also charged with violation of the Bhutan Information, Communication and Media Act of 2006. Sections 105(1) and 110 of this law require that authorities examine all films before public screening.
A Christian from Bhutan’s capital, Thimphu, told Compass that the conviction of Gurung disturbed area villagers.
While Gurung has the right to appeal, it remained unclear if he had the resources to take that course.
Both Gonggaon and Simkharkha are virtually inaccessible. It can take up to 24 and 48 hours to reach the villages from the nearest road.
“Both villages do not have electricity,” the daily reported. “But Prem Singh Gurung, with the help of some people, is believed to have carried a projector and a generator to screen the movies in the village.”
Over 75 percent of the 683,407 people in Bhutan are Buddhist, mainly from western and eastern parts. Hindus, mostly ethnic Nepalese from southern Bhutan, are estimated to be around 22 percent of the population.
It is also estimated that around 6,000 Bhutanese, mostly from south, are Christian in this landlocked nation between India and China. However, their presence is not officially acknowledged in the country. As a result, they practice their faith from the confines of their homes, with no Christian institution officially registered.
Buddhism is the state religion in Bhutan, and the government is mandated to protect its culture and religion according to the 2008 constitution. As in other parts of South Asia, people in Bhutan mistakenly believe that Christianity is a Western faith and that missionaries give monetary benefits to convert people from other religions.
Yesterday’s Kuensel published an opinion piece by a Bhutanese woman from New York who described herself as “an aspiring Buddhist” condemning both the conviction of Gurung and Christian “tactics.”
“Although we may not like the tactics used by the Christians to proselytize or ‘sell’ their religion to impoverished and vulnerable groups, let’s not lose sight of the bigger picture, in terms of religious tolerance, and what constitutes ‘promoting civil unrest,’” wrote Sonam Ongmo. “If we truly want to establish ourselves as a well-functioning democracy, with equal rights for all, let’s start with one of the fundamental ones – the right to choose one’s faith. We have nothing to worry about Buddhism losing ground to Christianity, but we will if, as a predominantly Buddhist state, we start to deny people the right to their faith.”
While her view is representative of liberal Buddhists in Bhutan, a reader’s response in a forum on Kuensel’s website reflected the harder line.
“These Christians are a cancer to our society,” wrote a reader identifying himself as The Last Dragon. “They had crusades after crusades – we don’t need that. We are very happy with Buddhism. Once Christianity is perfect – as they always claim [it] to be, then let’s see.”
In July, the government of Bhutan proposed an amendment in the Penal Code of Bhutan which would punish “proselytizing” that “uses coercion or other forms of inducement.” (See, “Buddhist Bhutan Proposes ‘Anti-Conversion’ Law,” July 21.)
Christian persecution arose in Bhutan in the 1980s, when the king began a “one-nation, one-people” campaign to “protect the country’s sovereignty and cultural integrity.” Ethnic Nepalese, however, protested the move on grounds of discrimination. Authorities responded militarily, leading to the expulsion or voluntary migration of over 100,000 ethnic Nepalese, many of whom were secret Christians, to the Nepal side of the border in Jhapa in the early 1990s.
An absolute monarchy for over 100 years, Bhutan became a democratic, constitutional monarchy in March 2008, in accordance with the wish of former King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who served from 1972 to 2006. Since the advent of democracy, the country has brought in many reforms. It is generally believed that the government is gradually giving more freedom to its citizens.
The present king, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, and Prime Minister Lyonchen Jigmey Thinley, are respected by almost all Bhutanese and are seen as benevolent rulers.
Report from Compass Direct News
Hindu extremists raid revival meeting in one area, while others attack gospel event in another.
NEW DELHI, April 27 (CDN) — Hindu extremists raided Christian events in India’s Madhya Pradesh state this month, leaving a visiting theology student dead and several other Christians injured.
The body of 23-year-old Amit Gilbert was recovered from a water well 25 feet from the site of a Christian revival meeting that 15 to 20 Hindu extremists attacked on April 17 in Gram Fallaiya, Post Pathakheda, Betul district. With covered heads and carrying iron rods and bamboo clubs, members of the Hindu extremist Dharam Sena and Bajrang Dal cut electricity at the night-time event and began striking, sending the more than 400 in attendance running, Christian leaders said.
Eyewitnesses said the assailants chased Gilbert, of Gorakhpur in Uttar Pradesh state, and beat him mainly on his legs. Police in the state controlled by the Hindu extremist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) said that for the moment they believe Gilbert accidentally fell into the well amid the chaos, but Christians present said that is unlikely.
His body was found with his head and legs submerged in the 1.5-meter deep water of the well, yet he had no water in his lungs or stomach when Christians drew him out, said Pastor Santwan Lal, organizer of the April 15-17 revival event, suggesting that Gilbert was dead before being thrown in.
“Amit was hit first and then picked up and thrown into the well,” Pastor Lal said. “If he had fallen into the well, he would have had more bruises and at least a broken bone or two, since the well is rocky and narrow. But that was not the case.”
Pastor Lal and others Compass spoke with said they believe the posture of the body leaves no doubt that Gilbert was murdered.
“He sustained an injury on the left side of his face near the ear,” Pastor Lal added.
An autopsy was conducted, but authorities are not disclosing findings, Pastor Lal said. Hindu extremists from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and Bajrang Dal are reportedly exerting intense pressure on local authorities.
Betul Assistant Sub-Inspector Santosh Jain told Compass that the results of the autopsy, conducted by a team of doctors, will not be released because they have now become politicized.
Police on April 19 arrested nine people in connection with the incident and charged them with rioting, violence and trespassing, but not murder. Officers also registered Gilbert’s death under the Section 174 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, which pertains to inquiry and report on an incident involving death of a person whether suicide or otherwise.
“We are trying hard, but this case does not seem to be moving forward,” Jain said. “A report has been registered against 10 to 12 [initially] unidentified people, and we have so far arrested nine. All have accepted their involvement in the crime, and all belong to the Bajrang Dal. Not one of them is a local from Betul. Their bails have been rejected at the lower court.”
Arrested were Rakesh Dhurwe, Neeraj Rajput, Radheshyam Sahu, Sonu Rajput, Raju Kahar, Rajesh Oriya, Raju Deshmukh, Arun Thackrey, and Hemrath Bahalavi, he said.
Though police have initially determined that Gilbert fell into the well, they say they are open to the possibility that he was thrown into it.
Pastor Lal added that two women were also injured in the melee.
“As a result of the violence, two ladies attending the meeting were hit, and one of them was admitted in a local hospital for three days,” he said.
Christian leaders said Betul has increasingly witnessed such attacks since the BJP came to power in the state in 2004, with various incidents of Christians being beaten, arrested and intimidated.
The April 17 attack was sudden and without provocation or warning, Pastor Lal said. Soon after the assailants left, the Christians gathered to determine if anyone were missing. An unnamed girl and a nephew of the pastor were missing but later found, and that night Gilbert’s body was found when a Christian shined a flashlight into the well.
Gilbert was visiting as a volunteer to another pastor after having finished his Masters in Divinity degree from Central India Bible College, Itarsi, Madhya Pradesh, in March. He had reportedly insisted on staying to help Pastor Abhishek John in Sallaiya village in order to gain ministry experience.
Sources said April 17 was to have been Gilbert’s last day of volunteer service, as he was planning to return home to Uttar Pradesh the next day.
Rampage in Balaghat
In Balaghat on April 14 and 15, Hindu extremists attacked a three-day gospel meeting with fuel-bombs in spite of the presence of police summoned beforehand to provide security.
Prior to the event attended by 10,000 people in Balaghat’s Mulna stadium, local newspapers carried open threats issued by the Bajrang Dal and BJP workers against the Christian community. On April 14Bajrang Dal members threw two fuel-bombs into the stadium that did not explode.
“They had hurled petrol bombs even in the presence of the police,” Saurabh Panduria, a local Christian doctor, told Compass. “Thankfully it did not explode, or anything could have happened as there were many women, children and sick people in the crowd.”
The next day Bajrang Dal and the BJP workers attacked the event as well as the quarters where people who had come from outside Balaghat to attend the meetings were staying, including Kamla Nehru hall.
Police increased security for the April 15 meeting, but as it was drawing to a close about 150 BJP andBajrang Dal members surrounded the stadium. Some of them tried to storm in, but police repelled them. Hindu extremists responded by pelting them with stones and throwing fuel bombs at police vehicles. They also attempted to destroy stadium property.
Bajrang Dal workers Golu Thakre and Manu Yadav were among those who harassed participants at an afternoon meeting on April 15, said Dr. Amos Singh of Jeevan Jyoti Ministries in Balaghat.
“Darbari and Ganesh from Barai village in Mandla, Madhya Pradesh, and Sunil Jagne from Gondia, Maharashtra, were severely beaten by the Bajrang Dal people, and they were interrogated like they were criminals,” Singh said. “The police arrived later.”
At 5 p.m. extremists caught hold of some Christians and forced them to the BJP local office in Balaghat, where BJP and Bajrang Dal members assaulted at least three of them.
Police arrested nearly 23 Bajrang Dal members, including eight leaders. This prompted BJP Member of Parliament K.D. Deshmukh and Member of Legislative Assembly Ramesh Bhatere to lead a mob that surrounded the police station and protested throughout the night, loudly shouting slogans against the administration and the Christian community.
About 1,000 to 1,500 BJP and Bajrang Dal supporters fanned throughout Balaghat, bunching particularly around a bus stand and railway station and damaging at least three vehicles, including ones belonging to a senior police officer and an ex-Member of Parliament, Ashok Singh Saraswat. The mob attempted to set fire to buses from Maharashtra state transport corporation.
Since most of those attending the meeting were outsiders, the Bajrang Dal members descended on the railway station and bus stand and harassed passengers and broke property, damaging both buses and railway coaches, Singh said. If the extremists found a Bible in the luggage of people at the railway station and bus stand, they attacked them, he said.
“Christians who were returning from the meeting and attempting to get away from Balaghat as soon as possible were attacked and beaten with sticks and pelted with stones,” Singh said. “Women workers of the BJP attacked Christian women staying in Sindhi Dharamshala [hall], and some Christians who had come from Gondia and other places from nearby Maharashtra and Chhattisgarh had to flee for their lives, leaving behind their luggage in the Kamla Nehru hall and other places where they were put up.”
Pastor Kamlesh Nagpure said that he and his family were stuck in the stadium, unable to go to their home outside the city limits of Balaghat.
“People were driven to safety in tractors and private cars following the ruckus, and they were attacked even till early morning, 4 a.m.,” he said. “The attackers used large sticks to rough people up and indulged in brick throwing, which also damaged some vehicles. Some of us who could not get a safe ride outside town limits were forced to stay inside the stadium the whole night. Most of the crowd was composed of women and children.”
Christian leaders reportedly said the mob also damaged a Catholic church in Balaghat and attempted to attack other church buildings and houses belonging to Christian leaders. They threw fuel-bombs at the house of the Rev. Arvind Deep, where several participants had taken refuge that night.
At last the administration was forced to impose a curfew until April 17, even as the BJP declared a total shutdown of market and other activities on April 16 and 17 as part of their protest.
“Targeting participants of the meeting and beating and intimidating them continued till 10 a.m. on April 16,” Singh told Compass. “Many Christians have fled Balaghat out of fear and have gone to live with their relatives.”
Eight people who were arrested on April 15 were reportedly released the next morning.
Report from Compass Direct News
Neighborhood residents protest new church building in Kabylie region.
ISTANBUL, December 31 (CDN) — Nearly 50 Muslim members of a community in northern Algeria blocked Christians from holding a Christmas service on Saturday (Dec. 26) to protest a new church building in their neighborhood.
As Algerian Christian converts gathered for their weekly meeting and Christmas celebration that morning, they were confronted by protestors barring the doors of their church building. Tafat Church is located in Tizi-Ouzou, a city 100 kilometers (62 miles) east of the Algerian capital, Algiers. Established five years ago, the church belongs to the Protestant Church of Algeria (EPA). Until recently it met in a small rented building. In November it opened its doors in a new location to accommodate the growing needs of its nearly 350 congregants.
The local residents protesting were reportedly irritated at finding that a church building with many visitors from outside the area had opened near their houses, according to an El Watan report on Sunday (Dec. 27). The daily newspaper highlighted that the residents feared their youth would be lured to the church with promises of money or cell phones.
“This land is the land of Islam! Go pray somewhere else,” some of the protestors said, according to El Watan. Protestors also reportedly threatened to kill the church pastor.
The protestors stayed outside the church until Monday (Dec. 28), and that evening some of them broke into the new building and stole the church microphones and speakers, according to the pastor, Mustafa Krireche. As of yesterday (Dec. 30) the church building’s electricity was cut.
One of Algeria’s Christian leaders, Youssef Ourahmane, said he could not recall another display of such outrage from Algerians against Christians.
“It was shocking, and it was the first time to my knowledge that this happened,” said Ourahmane. “And there weren’t just a few people, but 50. That’s quite a big number … the thing that happened on Saturday was a little unusual for Algeria and for the believers as well.”
A few weeks before the Saturday incident, local residents signed a petition saying they did not want the church to operate near their homes and wanted it to be closed. Local authorities presented it to the church, but Ourahmane said the fellowship, which is legally authorized to exist under the EPA, does not plan to respond to it.
On Saturday church leaders called police, who arrived at the scene and told the Christians to go away so they could talk to the protestors, whom they did not evacuate from the premises, according to local news website Kabyles.net. The story Kabyles.net published on Sunday was entitled, “Islamic tolerance in action at Tizi-Ouzou.”
“In that area where the church is located, I’m sure the people have noticed something happening,” said Ourahmane. “Having hundreds of Christians coming to meet and different activities in the week, this is very difficult for Muslims to see happening there next door, and especially having all these Muslim converts. This is the problem.”
A local Muslim from the neighborhood explained that residents had protested construction of the church building in a residential area, according to El Watan.
“What’s happening over there is a shame and an offense to Muslims,” he told El Watan. “We found an old woman kissing a cross … they could offer money or mobile phones to students to win their sympathies and sign them up. We won’t let them exercise their faith even if they have authorization. There’s a mosque for those who want to pray to God. This is the land of Islam.”
Behind the Scenes
Ourahmane said he believes that Islamists, and maybe even the government, were behind the protests.
“Maybe this is a new tactic they are trying to use to prevent churches from meeting,” he said. “Instead of coming by force and closing the church, the local police use the Muslim fundamentalists. That’s my analysis, anyhow.”
In February 2008 the government applied measures to better control non-Muslim groups through Ordinance 06-03. Authorities ordered the closure of 26 churches in the Kabylie region, both buildings and house churches, maintaining that they were not registered under the ordinance.
Despite efforts to comply with the ordinance, many Christian groups indicated they were blocked by lack of information, bureaucratic processes or resistance to their applications, according to this year’s International Religious Freedom Report by the U.S. Department of State. None of the churches have closed since then, but their status continues to remain questionable and only valid through registration with the EPA.
“If we have the right to exercise our faith, let them tell us so,” Pastor Krireche told El Watan. “If the authorities want to dissolve our association through legal means, let them do so.”
Recent growth of the church in Algeria is difficult for Muslims to accept, according to Ourahmane, despite public discourse among the nation’s intellectuals advocating for religious freedoms. Unofficial estimates of Christians and Jews combined range from 12,000 to 40,000, according to the state department report. Local leaders believe the number of Algerian Christians could be as many as 65,000.
Increasing numbers of people who come from Islam are like a stab for the Muslim community, said Ourahmane.
“It’s hard for them to accept that hundreds of Christians gather to worship every week,” he said. “It’s not easy. There are no words to explain it. It’s like a knife and you see someone bleeding … They see the church as a danger to Algerian culture.”
The Algerian government has the responsibility to face up to the changing face of its country and to grant Christians the freedom to meet and worship, said Ourahmane.
“The local authorities and especially the Algerian government need to be challenged in this all the time,” he said. “They have to be challenged: ‘Don’t you recognize the situation here?’ I mean we’re talking of tens of thousands of believers, not just a few.”
There are around 64 churches in the Kabylie region, where most Algerian Christians live, as well as house groups, according to Ourahmane. The Kabylie region is populated by Berbers, an indigenous people of North Africa.
“There are lots of healings and deliverance, and people are experiencing new things in their life,” Ourahmane said of the Algerian churches. “They are finding hope in Christ which they have never experienced before.”
There are half a dozen court cases against churches and Christians. None of these have been resolved, frozen in Algeria’s courts.
In ongoing negative media coverage of Christians, last month Algerian newspaper Echorouk published a story claiming that the former president of the EPA, who was deported in 2008, had returned to Algeria to visit churches, give advice and give them financial aid.
The report stated that the former EPA president, Hugh Johnson, was known for his evangelism and warned readers of his evangelizing “strategies.”
Yesterday Johnson told Compass by telephone that the report was pure fabrication, and that he has not set foot in Algeria since he was deported.
Johnson’s lawyers are still trying to appeal his case in Algerian courts.
This year church groups stated that the government denied the visa applications of some religious workers, citing the government ban on proselytizing, according to the state department report.
Report from Compass Direct News
Seminarians resist eviction from former municipal building as they await decent relocation.
JAKARTA, Indonesia, December 1 (CDN) — Some 1,000 seminary students are resisting efforts to evict them from the former municipal building of West Jakarta where they have taken refuge after Muslim protestors drove them from their campus last year.
On Oct. 27 officials began evicting about 300 students of Arastamar Evangelical Theological Seminary (SETIA) from blocks I and II of the former mayoral building, but those in blocks III, IV, and V chose to remain.
The students, some of whom had sown their mouths shut as part of a hunger strike, asserted that new quarters offered by the Jakarta Provincial Government are not yet fit for occupancy – dirty and unkempt with broken windows and doors. They said the property offered, the North Jakarta Transmigrant building, has not functioned since 1999, and its five buildings accommodate only 200 to 300 students.
The seminary students told Compass that unidentified mobs have threatened them, telling them to leave the former municipal complex immediately.
“They threaten us and tell us that if we do not move, our safety cannot be guaranteed,” said SETIA’s Yulius Thomas Bilo.
The Rev. Matheus Mangentang, rector of SETIA, confirmed that the threats had been made. Asked about the identity of the mobs, he said he knew only that they appeared daily to intimidate and threaten students.
“We are going to move as soon as possible – Dec. 31 at the latest,” Mangentang said. “If we don’t, the place is no longer safe.”
He added, however, that they would not move until their new location was clear.
“We have not wavered in our desire to return to our own place, because we actually have our own campus in Kampung Pulo, East Jakarta,” Mangentang told Compass.
The Jakarta Provincial Government has not allowed the students and staff to return to their campus, citing fear of more violence.
“It is not permissible for them to return to Kampung Pulo; conditions are not conducive,” the Jakarta area secretary who goes by a single name, Muhayat, told Compass.
In July 2008 hundreds of protestors shouting “Allahu-Akbar [“God is greater]” and brandishing machetes forced the evacuation of staff and students from the SETIA campus in Kampung Pulo village. Urged on by announcements from a mosque loudspeaker to “drive out the unwanted neighbor” following a misunderstanding between students and local residents, the protestors also had sharpened bamboo and acid and injured at least 20 students, some seriously.
Water and Electricity Crisis
Conditions for the 1,000 students living in the former West Jakarta mayor’s complex are worsening.
“Since the end of October, we have had no electricity and no water,” said Alexander Dimu, head of the student senate. “We have to depend upon our own resources and donations to buy water. We need about US$100 per day for water.”
Compass noted hundreds of students lined up to obtain water for bathing and drinking. They used old buckets to carry water to the bathrooms, which were badly in need of repair.
As a result of such living conditions, many students have diarrhea and hemorrhagic fever.
“So far, six have fever and 17 have diarrhea,” Dimu told Compass. “Those who are ill have been taken to a nearby hospital.”
A number of students have quit school, according to Mangentang, as their parents were worried about the health conditions. The average SETIA student is from outside Jakarta. They come from Nias Island, East Indonesia, Borneo and other areas. Their families are largely farmers.
“The parents have millions of expectations as to how they can help the children of their home villages after graduation,” said Mangentang.
The ultimate destination of the students is still unclear. The Jakarta Provincial Government has stood firm in ordering them to move to Cikarang, West Java, about 90 kilometers (56 miles) from Jakarta. At the same time, the SETIA Foundation has requested the government find a new campus venue within Jakarta to avoid the difficult process of obtaining permits in the new provincial jurisdiction of West Java.
After SETIA staff and students met on Nov. 16 with several members of Parliament at the former mayoral office, the MPs led by Education Committee Vice Chairman Heri Ahmadi promised to ask Jakarta Gov. Fauzi Bowo to return them to their campus at Kampung Pulo with the necessary security.
Mangentang said that he was still waiting for the members of Parliament to make good on that pledge.
The visit by the parliamentarians brought an end to a hunger strike by five students who had sewn their mouths shut at the former mayoral complex on Nov. 9. They were identified only as Yanisar, Leonardo, Mutari, Demas and Epy. That act followed a protest by the student council from Oct. 27 to Nov. 3.
Two units of heavy machinery had begun tearing down part of the main building where the 1,000 students are housed. Some of the students staying there were previously evicted from the Bumi Perkemahan Cibubur (BUPERTA) campground.
SETIA spokesman Yusup Agustinus Lifire told Compass the seminary is awaiting word from the Jakarta governor’s office about their returning to their campus at Kampung Pulo.
“We submitted an official letter to the governor, the police chief of Greater Jakarta and the military chief of Greater Jakarta on Oct. 28, but so far there is not any reply for us,” Lifire said. “We would like to leave this building if we could find a new place. It is not certain if the students began to attack and throw stones at police officers on Oct. 27-28 when they began demolishing one of the buildings. There were some provocateurs who started to throw some stones at police officers, then the officers threw the stones at the students and vice versa.”
Lifire also said the Jakarta governor’s office should take responsibility for the crisis. SETIA has asked the governor to guarantee security for a return to their original campus or else prepare or provide a new venue, he said.
A female student of Christian Education said there is a banner at the original campus that reads in Bahasa, “If you dare to return, we will wipe you out.”
Report from Compass Direct News
Joy mixes with disappointment as 28 of 57 convicted in Chiapas remain in prison.
MEXICO CITY, November 6 (CDN) — More than 35 mainly evangelical Christian prisoners unjustly accused in the December 1997 massacre in Acteal, Chiapas had hoped they would be released from jail this week, but after long deliberations the Supreme Court of Mexico on Wednesday (Nov. 4) ruled only nine should be freed and ordered new trials for 16 others.
The high court thus ended its involvement in the controversy over the ordeal of the peasant laborers, ordering the release of the nine men – without declaring them innocent – and retrials for 16 others, this time without “invented” evidence and testimony. Those 16 men, plus several others including six who had previously been granted retrials, remain in prison.
In a 4-1 vote, the court ruled the federal attorney general violated legal process, fabricated evidence and false testimonies, formulated non-existent crimes and provided no concrete argument establishing culpability of the nine men.
Supreme Court Justice José Ramón Cossío Diaz said the decision to free the men was not a declaration of innocence but recognition of “a lack of impugning evidence” against them in the Dec. 22, 1997 massacre, in which 45 people were killed, including women and children.
“These Indians were condemned and declared guilty as a result of a trial that was plagued with violations,” Cossío Diaz said, according to El Universal. “No material proving their guilt exists.”
When prisoners convicted in the Acteal slayings learned that only nine were being released, they reportedly wept – some for joy, but most from disappointment.
“Everything was invented – I did not kill anyone,” one of the evangelical Christians released, 45-year old Manuel Luna Perez, told Proceso magazine. “Many of our companions [in jail] also know nothing about who planned the massacre.”
The court ruled that federal authorities had used “invented proofs and witnesses” in convicting the men, many of them evangelical Christians supportive of the then-ruling party who had land disputes and other conflicts with their accusers – mainly Roman Catholics sympathetic to the rebel Zapatista National Liberation Army.
At least five of the nine men released were known to be evangelical Christians when they were rounded up 12 years ago: Pablo Perez Perez, Emilio Gomez Luna, Juan Gomez Perez, Hilario Guzman Luna, and Manuel Luna Perez. Also released were Mariano Diaz Chicario, Pedro Lopez Lopez, Juan Hernandez Perez and Ignacio Gomez Gutierrez.
The nine were released from El Amate federal prison in Cintalapa, Chiapas yesterday and transported to Tuxtla where they are temporarily housed.
“There must have been about 200 to 250 people who made the trip [to the prison] – many were spouses and family members anxious to see the men,” said a Compass source in Chiapas. “As per the previous occasion, the people waited patiently outside the prison for the men to be released, only to be disappointed because they were not allowed to speak with them when they left the prison. The men were put in a mini-bus and taken to where they will be housed under government supervision for the next couple of weeks.”
The relatives and others traveled on to the men’s temporary quarters in Tuxtla, where they were able to meet with them, and several of the ex-prisoners’ spouses and other family members are staying with them there, the source said.
The freed men said the government has offered them what it promised 20 prisoners released on Aug. 13, the source said: farmland, help with building houses, water, electricity and other basic amenities, as well as helping them monetarily until they become self-supporting.
An attorney representing 31 defendants in the case, Jose Antonio Caballero, reportedly expressed disappointment that the high court didn’t free more of those accused. But the attorney told EFE news service that the ruling would help remedy some of the mistakes in the legal process.
In the case of the 16 men to be given new trials, the high court ruled there was sufficient evidence for prosecution to retry them in a lower court in Chiapas. This time, the Supreme Court ruled, the lower court will not take into consideration any of the fabricated evidence or false testimonies, and the charges of use of military weapons and carrying a gun without a license are dropped.
On Aug. 12 the high court ordered the release of the first 20 prisoners (freed the next day), for the same reasons the nine men were released yesterday. All the freed men, mostly evangelical believers who insisted on their innocence, had been sentenced to 25 years and had already served nearly 12.
The most recent group was to have been freed on Oct. 28, but the Chiapas government led by Gov. Juan Sabines requested extra time to present “new proofs which demonstrate the probable responsibility of previous state and federal public officials, as well as civilians” in the massacre, according to La Jornada. Over the years, lawyers have insisted that the men were tried without access to interpreters or legal defenders acquainted with their indigenous culture and customs, as required by Mexican law.
For the past several weeks, families of the condemned men had set up a form of tent protest in the central plaza of Mexico City, attempting to call attention to the plight of their husbands, fathers, brothers and cousins.
With this week’s decision and the decision on Aug. 12, the court has ordered the release of 29 of the total 57 prisoners and retrials for 22 others accused in the Acteal massacre. Those 22 plus six others remain in prison.
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 highlighted 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.
Report from Compass Direct News
Government stops paying rent for site where students were driven more than a year ago.
JAKARTA, Indonesia, October 20 (CDN) — Approximately 700 students from Arastamar Evangelical Theological Seminary (SETIA) are facing eviction at the end of the month from a campground where Muslim protestors drove them last year.
Education will end for students who have been living in 11 large tents and studying in the open air at Bumi Perkemahan Cibubur (BUPERTA) campground, many of them for more than a year. Hundreds of protestors shouting “Allahu-Akbar [“God is greater]” and brandishing machetes forced the evacuation of staff and students from the SETIA campus in Kampung Pulo village on July 26-27, 2008.
Urged on by announcements from a mosque loudspeaker to “drive out the unwanted neighbor” following a misunderstanding between students and local residents, the protestors also had sharpened bamboo and acid and injured at least 20 students, some seriously.
The Jakarta provincial government has ceased paying the rental fee of the campsite in East Jakarta, a bill that now totals 2.7 billion rupiahs (US$280,000), which camp officials said will result in the eviction of the students and the end of their studies at the end of the month.
At the beginning of the month, camp officials cut off electricity and water; as a result, the students have had to go 1,500 meters to bathe and use the toilet in the Cibubur marketplace. Additionally, several of the student tents were taken down. In spite of the conditions, sources said, the students have maintained their enthusiasm and no one has quit the school.
SETIA officials said camp management rejected their request for an extension.
“The electricity and the water were cut off after the Cibubur campground managers rejected Arastamar’s request,” said Yusuf Lifire, SETIA administrator.
Other students at the seminary have taken temporary shelter in the other parts of greater Jakarta. Those living quarters, however, are so overcrowded that some of the students have become ill.
Umar Lubis, head of BUPERTA campground, said camp officials have provided the students great leeway and shown great tolerance in the year that rent has not been paid.
“We have provided water, electricity, and other facilities,” Lubis told Compass. “However, Jakarta Province has not paid us campground rental since October 2008. The government did pay 700 million rupiahs [US$75,000], but that only covered the rental fees through September 2008.”
Muhayat, area secretary of Jakarta Province who goes by a single name, told Compass that beginning in October 2008, the provincial government was no longer responsible for campsite rental for the SETIA students. The provincial government made this decision, he said, because the seminary refused to move to Jonggol, Bogor, West Java, about 50 kilometers (31 miles) from the old campus.
“We offered to move them to Jonggol, but Arastamar took a hard line and wanted to be in Jakarta,” Muhayat said.
The Rev. Matheus Mangentang, rector of SETIA, said that they refused to move to Jonggol because their school permit was for Jakarta.
“If we moved to Jonggol, we would have to get a new permit,” Mangentang told Compass. “We suspect that this would be an extremely difficult process.”
Many students are suffering from respiratory and other illnesses, and some have breast cancer. The sick are being cared for at the Christian University of Indonesia hospital.
One of the students living at the BUPERTA campground told Compass that many of the students had fever from mosquito bites.
“When it rains here, we sleep on water and mud,” said a 21-year-old student who identified herself only as Siska. Her statements were echoed by a Christian education major named Ahasyweros.
“We struggle daily in a place like this – especially after our request was turned down,” the student said. “We don’t know where we are going to go. We hope that the Jakarta provincial government will have the heart to help us.”
The staff and students were forced from their campus by a mob that claimed to be acting for the local citizens of Pulo Kampung, Makasar District, East Jakarta last year. Key among motives for the attack was that area Muslims felt “disturbed” by the presence of the Christian college. They wanted it to be moved to another area.
The approximately 1,300 seminary students were placed in three locations: 760 at the BUPERTA campground, 330 at the Kalimalang Transit Lodge, and 220 at the former office of the mayor of West Jakarta.
The fate of the students at all locations was similar; they were overcrowded and short on water, and overall facilities were substandard.
Jakarta Vice-Gov. Prijanto, who goes by a single name, had promised to find a solution. He had also stated that the government was ready to help and would pay for the students’ room and board, but this has not been the case.
Mangentang said he continues to hope for good will from the Jakarta government, which he said should return the school to its original site in Pulo Kampung.
“Even if there is talk in the provincial government that the locals don’t accept us, we still want to go back,” he said. “After we are back, then we would be prepared to talk and negotiate about the future. Healthy discussions are not possible if we are not back in our own home. If we tried to talk now, while we are trampled upon and pressured, nothing healthy would result. It is better that we return to our own place so that we can talk at the same level.”
Report from Compass Direct News