MEXICO CITY (CN) — A state judge in Oaxaca Monday canceled a hearing to review the case of seven men held in mandatory pretrial detention, most of whom have been behind bars for almost nine years.
State Judge Luis Salvador Cordero pushed the hearing back to Oct. 2, citing the prisoners’ failure to file documentation with the court that they had been notified of the hearing, according to a recording of Cordero played by activists outside the courthouse in Huautla de Jiménez, Oaxaca, Monday afternoon.
Cordero did not respond to a request for comment.
Friends and family of the men did not buy the reasoning, calling it a pretext to avoid a hearing that had been planned for months.
“It makes us want to cry, they always do the same thing,” said Argelia Betanzos, daughter of political prisoner Jaime Betanzos, in a phone interview with Courthouse News.
Five of the seven men were arrested in December 2014 in nearby Eloxochitlán de Flores Magón. They were put in mandatory pretrial detention after a political dispute with a local strongman and his supporters.
The strongman's daughter, Elisa Zepeda, claimed the arrested men and dozens of others were responsible for the murder of her brother and acts of violence committed on her and her mother.
Betanzos refutes Zepeda’s version of events, claiming she concocted her story to punish and silence her family’s political opponents.
In a video posted to Facebook after the announcement of the hearing’s postponement, Betanzos accused Zepeda of having bought off Judge Cordero and influencing him to postpone the hearing.
Zepeda said in a statement to the press that she was personally present with her lawyers in Huautla for the hearing. Betanzos and others could not confirm that Zepeda had appeared at the courthouse Monday.
“However, the defendants and two of their lawyers did not appear at the mentioned proceedings, despited being duly summoned, which caused the review or cessation of the preventive measure they themselves requested to not take place,” Zepeda’s statement read.
Betanzos confirmed that all members of the legal team appointed by the Federal Public Defenders Institute were present in Huautla and that the defendants who did not appear had notified the court that they planned to exercise their right to decline to appear.
A private lawyer for one of the defendants did not appear, but this should not have affected the others’ right to a hearing, as mandatory pretrial detention is determined on an individual basis, according to the public defenders, who declined to give their names.
Documents filed by the federal public defenders in response to the postponement affirmed that the defendants were fully within their rights to decline appearing in court. They also revealed that one of Zepeda’s legal representatives was not present, which was also used as reasoning for postponing the hearing.
The public defenders affirmed that the defendants' presence was not legally required for the hearing to take place and that Zepeda was adequately represented, and therefore the judge's decision to postpone “lacked motive.”
Established in Article 19 of Mexico’s Constitution, mandatory pretrial detention automatically remands those accused of certain crimes to await trial in prison. It has a legal limit of two years.
Mexico’s legal community almost unanimously agrees with the legal and moral argument against the measure, which the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled in January puts Mexico in violation of its obligations under the American Convention on Human Rights.
“Article 19 has unfortunately been very unjust to many people in this country,” said Román Lazcano Fernández, head of the Forum of Constitutionalists of Mexico.
The Inter-American Court’s ruling compels judges in Mexico to release people held in mandatory pretrial detention for longer than the two-year limit, Lazcano said.
“After the ruling of the Inter-American Court, it’s clear that the precedent is obligatory for Mexico,” he said.
In another video posted to Facebook Monday, Betanzos appealed to President Andrés Manuel López Obrador for help, saying that the case proves that his allegations that the judiciary is rotten and corrupted by criminal interests are “very true.”
“President López Obrador, we are so tired,” she said, her voice cracking as she spoke. “We are disgusted with the justice system here in Oaxaca. It’s a system that turns our stomachs.”
A spokesperson for López Obrador did not respond to a request for comment.
Supporters of the incarcerated men blocked streets and protested upon learning of the postponement. Julia, a member of a self-defense group formed to demand their release, said in a phone interview that the mood in Huautla was one of anger at the judge’s decision. She preferred not to give her last name out of safety concerns.
“It’s, you know, the same as always,” she said. “We’re all enraged, all of us who came.”Follow @@copycopeland
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.