Monday 11 November 2013

Pardons, American style: Peña Nieto frees Alberto Patishtán

Free at last
A pardon is an acknowledgement of two injustices. The first is the injustice of the initial conviction and sentence, and the second the injustice that a regal, presidential, or bureaucratic body can override the rule of law.

In parliamentary democracies, as in Canada, pardons tend to be bureaucratic, and are handled via parole boards. A pardon in Great Britain is rare, and does not have the formal, ritualistic quality common to departing presidents in the United States. Presidential republics, perhaps as a kind of psychological need to mimic the powers of the dethroned monarch, tend to relapse into a medieval, regal authority, with the commander in chief tossing out pardons at the end of a presidency much like condemned kings en route to the guillotine.

All of which makes Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto’s pardon of Alberto Patishtán, a Tzotzil Indian and former elementary school teacher, both heartwarming and disturbing. This was a historic move following a unanimous decision in the Mexican Congress to reform the constitution and to authorize the president to issue pardons to individuals who do not pose a public security risk or whose human rights are found to have been violated during the judicial process.

What follows is the news as reported in Justice in Mexico, using Mexican media sources:

Patishtán  had served 13 years of a 60-year prison sentence for the murder of seven police officers, among other federal crimes. Specifically, Patishtán was arrested in 2000 in connection with the death of seven police officers ambushed in the El Bosque municipality in Chiapas.

Among the dead following the June 12 attack was the El Bosque municipal police chief, Alejandro Pérez Cruz. There were only two survivors, one of whom was Rosemberg Gómez Pérez, son of then El Bosque Mayor Manuel Gómez Ruiz. Initial reports were that the attack was orchestrated by members of the Zapatista National Liberation Army (Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional, EZLN), or the Popular Revolutionary Army (Ejército Popular Revolucionario, EPR).

On June 19, authorities detained Patishtán despite having no known connection with either the EZLN or the EPR, and despite witness testimonies that he had been in town teaching classes at the time of the attack. He was sentenced to 60 years on federal homicide, assault, robbery, and weapons charges.

Patishtán’s defense team had exhausted all of its domestic legal avenues, having lost an appeal in a Tuxtla Gutiérrez Chiapas court in September that found the defense’s claims of its client’s innocence to be unfounded. Mexico’s Supreme Court (Suprema Corte de Justicia de la Nación, SCJN) had previously refused to rule on the case, sending it back to the Chiapas state court system. Patishtán, however, had gained the attention of domestic and international human rights groups through numerous hunger strikes meant to highlight the unjust incarceration of indigenous people throughout Chiapas.

In announcing Patishtán’s pardon, Interior Minister Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong recognized that there had been violations to his human rights and right to due process throughout his legal proceedings. While Osorio Chong did not elaborate, human rights groups and Patishtán’s defense team have pointed out that he was never provided with a translator, and also that the only witness identifying Patishtán as the aggressor was Rosemberg Gómez, son of Mayor Manuel Gómez. According to Amnesty International, Patishtán had been one of the authors of a recall petition against Gómez in response to the deteriorating public security situation in the municipality.

The pardoning of Patishtán, however, has not managed to quiet human rights groups, who have held this case up as just one example of the abuses endemic to the Mexican justice system, particularly in its handling of indigenous defendants. The Fray Bartolomé Human Rights Center issued a statement following Patishtán’s release from prison that a petition made to the Inter-American Human Rights Commission (Comisión Interamericana de Derechos Humanos, CIDH) requesting reparations paid to Patishtán and punishment for those responsible for his unjust imprisonment is still on the table, emphasizing that those responsible for the death of the seven police remain free.

The pardon, as the human rights group points out, is on procedural grounds, and does not officially recognize Patishtán’s innocence, which he has maintained since the day of his arrest in June 2000.

(TE Wilson is the author of Mezcalero, a Detective Sánchez novel.)

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