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20 suspects in Mexico massacre freed

Twenty men were released from prison on Thursday after their sentences in the 1997 massacre of 45 Indian villagers in southern Chiapas state were overturned by Mexico's Supreme Court.

world Updated: Aug 14, 2009 12:48 IST

Twenty men were released from prison on Thursday after their sentences in the 1997 massacre of 45 Indian villagers in southern Chiapas state were overturned by Mexico's Supreme Court.

The men proclaimed their innocence, after Mexico's top court ruled that prosecutors used illegally obtained evidence in their convictions. New trials were ordered for six other prisoners. "We were in prison for almost 12 years, for a crime that we didn't commit," said Antonio Ruiz Perez, one of the 20 Tzotzil Indian men. "That is almost 12 years they robbed from our lives, and separated us from our families."

"But we don't hold any resentment against the people who unfairly accused us," Ruiz Perez said. "We don't want any more problems. That is why we are not going back."

Chiapas interior secretary Noe Castanon said the men will be relocated away from their home village near the massacre site to avoid tensions with survivors and their families. The men have been taken for resettlement to the town of Berriozabal, about 50 miles (80 kms) west of the hamlet of Acteal, where the massacre took place. The Acteal victims were supporters of the leftist Zapatista rebels, and the men convicted in the slayings were from a neighboring pro-government hamlet that had political and territorial disputes with the victims.

The state government said the men will be given assistance to find housing, land or jobs there.

The bloodshed in Acteal was the worst single instance of violence during the conflict in Chiapas, which began when the Zapatista rebels staged a brief armed uprising in early 1994 to demand more rights for Indians.

Paramilitaries with alleged ties to government figures attacked a prayer meeting of Roman Catholic activists who sympathized with the rebels. Over several hours on Dec. 22, 1997, the assailants killed 45 people, including children as young as 2 months old. More than three dozen people have been convicted in the case. The court cited irregularities such the failure to provide interpreters for suspects who speak the Tzotzil Indian language. Prosecutors also apparently took pictures of the suspects and showed them to witnesses, who later identified the men as perpetrators. The justices noted they were not ruling on the guilt or innocence of the men.

Antonio Arias, who was wounded in the attack, called the ruling unfair and warned there could be unrest in Acteal if those released return there.

"We know they are responsible because we saw them," Arias said on Wednesday in the nearby city of San Cristobal de las Casas.