Wrongfully imprisoned Ã’ the price of conscience

'Rodolfo Montiel Flores and Teodoro Cabrera GarcÃa are prisoners of conscience ,' Amnesty International declared on Saturday 1 April. 'Their only crime was to oppose logging operations threatening the environment and livelihood of local peasant communities.'

'The Mexican authorities should take urgent steps to end this injustice and ensure the immediate and unconditional release of both men,' Amnesty International continued.

Rodolfo Montiel and Teodoro Cabrera have languished in prison since their arbitrary arrest by the Mexican army on 2 May 1999 in Pizotla, Guerrero. During the initial days of their detention they were forced to sign self-incriminating confessions and later charged with criminal offences. The federal judge assigned to the case is expected to reach a verdict later this month.

'Their detention - and the campaign of harassment and threats that preceded it - was a clear message that their activities, clashing with powerful local economic interests, would not be tolerated,' Amnesty International said.

'At a time when the Mexican government has declared that human rights will be high on its agenda for the 21st century, it is crucial that civil society is allowed to exercise its rights - including that of peacefully protecting the environment,' the organisation added.

Background Rodolfo Montiel and Teodoro Cabrera - founders of the Organizaci¤n de Campesinos Ecologistas de la Sierra de Petatl…n y Coyuca de Catal…n, Peasant Environmentalist Organization of the Mountains of Petatl…n y Coyuca de Catal…n -- were arbitrarily detained on 2 May 1999 by members of the 40th Infantry Battalion (40Ãœ Batall¤n de InfanterÃa) of the Mexican Army in the community of Pizotla, Guerrero state.

While in the incommunicado custody of the military, the two men were forced to sign self-incriminating confessions. They were subsequently charged with drugs and firearms-related crimes. Since then they have been held in detention in a civilian prison awaiting trial before a federal judge in the 5th District Court of Iguala (Juzgado Quinto de Distrito de Iguala), Guerrero state. The court is expected to reach a verdict towards the end of April 2000. Amnesty International believes the charges to be unfounded.

The emergence of the Organizaci¤n de Campesinos Ecologistas was apparently seen by local economic interests which promoted and benefited from the logging operations as a threat. Members of the 40th Infantry Battalion, assigned to counter-insurgency and anti-narcotics operations in the region, also began a campaign of harassment and threats against the group.

For example, in July 1998, members of the 40th Infantry Battalion questioned and threatened Rodolfo Montiel,

and warned that his family would face reprisals if he reported the incident.

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