– Knight Ridder Newspapers

MEXICO CITY – A Mexican federal judge on Saturday threw out genocide charges against former President Luis Echeverria for the deaths of dozens of students in 1971 because the statute of limitations for such a crime had expired, federal prosecutors said.

The ruling by judge Cesar Flores is an enormous setback for Ignacio Carrillo, a special prosecutor appointed by President Vicente Fox in 2000 to investigate crimes against political dissidents over 30 years ago.

Carrillo said the judge’s decision was hasty and “didn’t adequately evaluate each and every piece of evidence.” Carrillo said he would appeal to the Supreme Court.

Echeverria, 82, who ruled from 1970 until 1976, was the first former president to face such serious charges and is viewed by many Mexicans as one of its most oppressive leaders.

The verdict was a victory for the Institutional Revolutionary Party, known as the PRI, which had gathered a group of lawyers to defend one their most prominent members. But human rights groups and analysts were disappointed and stunned.

“We aren’t ruling out that there may have been some negotiation or pressure from the PRI,” political analyst Miguel Angeles Granados Chapa said. “This issue is very delicate. Nothing like this has ever happened. Genocide is in our penal code but it’s never been used.”

Hordes of reporters have been casing Echeverria’s mansion in southern Mexico for days and he hasn’t been seen since Tuesday. Echeverria’s personal secretary Jorge Nuno said Saturday that Echeverria was “calm” and with his family.

Echeverria’s lawyer told journalists “there was never any proof of genocide” but warned the case wasn’t over.

“It’s not a closed case because surely the prosecutor will appeal. The Supreme Court can resolve it, and it will either drop the charges or order arrest warrants,” said lawyer Juan Velasquez. “Mr. Echeverria has always been at home, ready to face charges, however indignant it would have been to go to jail.”

Carrillo, who heads the Special Prosecutor’s Office for Political and Social Movements of the Past, asked Flores on Thursday night to issue arrest warrants for Echeverria and other top officials on genocide charges. He had presented the judge with nine boxes of evidence, which Flores began reading Friday morning. By law, Flores had 24 hours to make a decision.

The judge apparently agreed with the defense that genocide charges did not meet the country’s penal code because of a 30-year-statute of limitations on genocide that expired June 10, 2001.

(EDITORS: STORY CAN END HERE)

“It’s ridiculous of think of the incidents of June 10, 1971 as genocide, as Jews suffered under the Nazis,” Velasquez said, adding the incidents weren’t a “massacre” but a confrontation.

On June 10, 1971, about 9,000 students marched in downtown Mexico City in solidarity for hundreds of university students killed during a 1968 protest against the government at the neighborhood of Tlatelolco.

Carrillo and witnesses say a paramilitary group called the Falcons, created by Echeverria when he held the powerful post of interior minister, opened fire without provocation and killed more than 30 students. The event is called the Corpus Christi Massacre.

No one ever was charged.

Carrillo said Friday that for technical reasons, the 30-year limit had been interrupted by unfinished investigations, making charges still timely.

Along with Echeverria, others charged with genocide were former interior minister Mario Moya Palencia and former attorney general Julio Sanchez Vargas. News reports said nine other officials were also indicted.

Echeverria has portrayed political opponents of the time as terrorists. During the 1970’s and 1980’s, rebel groups, many Marxist, were intent on overthrowing the government. But many were borne of liberal student movements that erupted around the world. Human right groups say hundreds, perhaps, thousands, were tortured, killed and vanished in Mexico’s dirty war.

Fox is the first president from an opposition party, ousting the PRI in July 2000. He created the special prosecutors office a year later, promising to bring to justice criminals of the past, no matter how high up they were.

“What a sad day this is,” said Ana Mario Prieto, a member of the rights group Movement of 1968. “But our fight is not over.”



(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): MEXICO-DIRTYWAR

AP-NY-07-24-04 1842EDT



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