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 


Accepting Islamic law in exchange for peace leaves many uncertain, fearful.

ISTANBUL, March 27 (Compass Direct News) – Just over a month since Pakistan’s fertile Swat Valley turned into a Taliban stronghold where sharia (Islamic law) rules, the fate of the remaining Christians in the area is uncertain.

Last month, in an effort to end a bloody two-year battle, the Islamabad administration struck a deal with Taliban forces surrendering all governance of Swat Valley in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP). Sources told Compass that after the violence that has killed and displaced hundreds, an estimated 500 Christians remain in the area. Traditionally these have been low-skilled workers, but younger, more educated Christians work as nurses, teachers and in various other professions.

The sole Church of Pakistan congregation in Swat, consisting of 40 families, has been renting space for nearly 100 years. The government has never given them permission to buy land in order to build a church building.

An associate pastor of the church in central Swat told Yousaf Benjamin of the National Commission for Justice and Peace that with the bombing of girls schools at the end of last year, all Christian families migrated to nearby districts. After the peace deal and with guarded hope for normalcy and continued education for their children, most of the families have returned to their homes but are reluctant to attend church.

The associate pastor, who requested anonymity, today told sources that “people don’t come to the church as they used to come before.” He said that although the Taliban has made promises of peace, the Christian community has yet to believe the Muslim extremists will hold to them.

“The people don’t rely on Taliban assurances,” said Benjamin.

Last week the associate pastor met with the third in command of the main Taliban militant umbrella group in Pakistan, Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, Kari Abdullah, and requested land in order to build a church. Abdullah reportedly agreed, saying that Islam is a religion of peace and equality, and that his group intended to provide equal opportunities to the religious communities of Swat.

The Catholic Church in Swat is located in a school compound that was bombed late last year. Run by nuns and operated under the Catholic Church Peshawar Diocese, the church has been closed for the last two years since insurgents have been fighting government led forces, source said.

Parliamentarian Shahbaz Bhatti said Christians and the few Hindus in Swat valley have lived under terror and harassment by the Taliban since insurgents began efforts to seize control of the region. He met with a delegation of Christians from Swat last month who said they were concerned about their future, but Bhatti said only time will tell how the changes will affect Christians.

“The Christian delegation told me that they favor the peace pact if indeed it can bring peace, stability and security to the people living there,” he said. “But they also shared their concern that if there is enforcement of sharia, what will be their future? But we will see how it will be implemented.”

Although there have been no direct threats against Christians since the establishment of the peace accord, some advocates fear that it may only be a matter of time.

“These days, there are no reports of persecution in Swat,” Lahore-based reporter Felix Qaiser of Asia News told Compass by phone, noting the previous two years of threatening letters, kidnappings and aggression against Christians by Islamic extremists. “But even though since the implementation of sharia there have been no such reports, we are expecting them. We’re expecting this because other faiths won’t be tolerated.”

Qaiser also expressed concern about the treatment of women.

“They won’t be allowed to move freely and without veils,” he said. “And we’re very much concerned about their education there.”

In the past year, more than 200 girls schools in Swat were reported to have been burned down or bombed by Islamic extremists.

Remaining girls schools were closed down in January but have been re-opened since the peace agreement in mid-February. Girls under the age of 13 are allowed to attend.

Since the deal was struck, seven new sharia judges have been installed, and earlier this month lawyers were trained in the nuances of Islamic law. Those not trained are not permitted to exercise their profession. As of this week, Non-Governmental Organizations are no longer permitted in the area and vaccinations have been banned.

“These are the first fruits of Islamic law, and we’re expecting worse things – Islamic punishment such as cutting off hands, because no one can dictate to them,” Qaiser said. Everything is according to their will and their own interpretation of Islamic law.”


Launch Point for Taliban

Analysts and sources on the ground have expressed skepticism in the peace deal brokered by pro-Taliban religious leader Maulana Sufi Muhammad, who is also the leader of Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi. The insurgent, who has long fought for implementation of sharia in the region, has also fought alongside the Taliban against U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

He was imprisoned and released under a peace deal in April 2008 in an effort to restore normalcy in the Swat Valley. Taliban militants in the Swat area are under the leadership of his son-in-law, Maulana Fazlullah.

The agreement to implement sharia triggered alarm around the world that militants will be emboldened in the northwest of Pakistan, a hotbed for Taliban and Al-Qaeda extremists fighting Western forces in Afghanistan and bent on overthrowing its government.

Joe Grieboski of the Institute on Religion and Public Policy said the peace deal makes Talibanization guaranteed by law, rendering it impossible to return to a liberal democracy or any guarantee of fundamental rights.

“The government in essence ceded the region to the Taliban,” said Grieboski. “Clerical rule over the region will fulfill the desires of the extremists, and we’ll see the region become a copy of what Afghanistan looked like under Taliban rule.”

This can only mean, he added, that the Taliban will have more power to promulgate their ideology and power even as the Pakistani administration continues to weaken.

“Unfortunately, this also creates a safe launching off point for Taliban forces to advance politically, militarily and ideologically into other areas of the country,” said Grieboski. “The peace deal further demonstrates the impotence of [Asif Ali] Zardari as president.”

Grieboski said the peace deal further demonstrates that Pakistani elites – and President Zardari in particular – are less concerned about fundamental rights, freedom and democracy than about establishing a false sense of security in the country.

“This peace deal will not last, as the extremists will demand more and more, and Zardari and the government have placed themselves in a weakened position and will once again have to give in,” said Grieboski.

Sohail Johnson, chief coordinator of advocacy group Sharing Life Ministry Pakistan, said he fears that militants in Swat will now be able to freely create training centers and continue to attack the rest of Pakistan.

“They will become stronger, and this will be the greatest threat for Christians living in Pakistan,” said Johnson.

Thus far the government has not completely bowed to Taliban demands for establishment of full sharia courts, and it is feared that the insurgents may re-launch violent attacks on civilians until they have full judicial control.

“The question of the mode of implementation has not yet been decided, because the Taliban want their own qazis [sharia judges] and that the government appointed ones should quit,” said lawyer Khalid Mahmood, who practices in the NWFP.

Mahmood called the judiciary system in Swat “collapsed” and echoed the fear that violence would spread in the rest of the country.

“They will certainly attack on the neighboring districts,” he said.

Earlier today, close to the Swat Valley in Khyber, a suicide bomber demolished a mosque in Jamrud, killing at least 48 people and injuring more than 150 others during Friday prayers. Pakistani security officials reportedly said they suspected the attack was retaliation for attempts to get NATO supplies into Afghanistan to use against Taliban fighters and other Islamist militants.

Report from Compass Direct News