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Experts Press Mexican President For Details Of Decree Granting Inmates Humanitarian Release 

Some elderly, unsentenced, or tortured prisoners were already eligible for release under a 2020 amnesty.

Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador announced last Thursday that he would issue a decree to release prisoners who have not been convicted, have been tortured, or are over 75 years old. But specialists in penal matters and national security say the president’s decree accomplishes nothing new. The Amnesty Law published on April 22, 2020, already covered these points.

Experts say the potential release of inmates who committed lesser crimes and are awaiting a sentence is only one part of the process, and that the government’s decree must consider social reentry programs and other types of support.

People eligible for amnesty may lack critical support, as their families may have abandoned them. Critics say that without help, released inmates may have no access to a life with dignity. They say that freedom by itself does not address the underlying issue, which, they suggest, is a broken criminal justice system.

“To begin with, what the president said is nothing new. Before the announcement, there were already people taking that position … and the Amnesty Law considered the benefits of such release,” said Saskia Niño de Rivera, the president of the civil society organization Reinserta.

Niño de Rivera, who has worked for a long time defending the rights of incarcerated people, said the decree should specify the release of inmates with chronic diseases since that is a cornerstone of the Amnesty Law.

“What is important is that [the government] explains in detail how it will carry out the plan because different laws already cover the issue. … It is also important that the document or decree specifies what people are eligible for this benefit because access to the criminal justice system [in Mexico] is only the privilege of some,” she said.

Luis Carlos Sánchez, a researcher for the civil society organization Causa en Común, sees contradictions in the president’s plan and what his party has pushed in Congress.

“Last year, the parliamentary group supporting the president approved reforms to expand the [number of] crimes that merit preventive detention,” he said. Offenses such as fuel theft and electoral crimes are considered “serious” and fall into this category. But there “is something that should be made clear. There are crimes such as femicide that we all agree on.”

Both experts said that the underlying problem is the number of people who remain in prison for years, despite being incarcerated under a precautionary measure as their investigations are carried out. Later, after their files are reviewed, they are released, sometimes due to procedural “mistakes” or because they were innocent.

“We see contradictions in the president’s decree. The question would be: why are some inmates still incarcerated if they have not been convicted? This reality is rooted in a problem with the criminal justice system. The announcement has nothing new. … Not everyone is guilty; not everyone is innocent. There is a justice problem in the country, and the president eludes it,” said Sánchez.

Niño de Rivera says the essential step in terms of security and justice for inmates who have been tortured or those that have not been convicted is to review Mexico’s criminal justice system. “It is an old system that takes advantage of those who have less.”

The president announced last year’s Amnesty Law as a measure to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in prisons. But Sanchez says it has not led to the release of as many people as it intended; it was insufficient.

The State of Mexico’s El Altiplano prison still has a “red light” on the COVID-19 epidemiological traffic light regardless. Mario Casarrubias, who was allegedly guilty of the disappearance of 43 students of the teacher-training college in Ayotzinapa, Guerrero in 2014, lost his life to COVID-19.

“Another problem is that one government should not place blame on others, but instead look for ways to prevent the old system from continuing,” said Sánchez.

Niño de Rivera said that releasing prisoners who were tortured, have not been convicted, are ill with chronic diseases, or are seniors is not enough. The government must make clear how it is going to help the freed inmates.

“Public defenders have more work than they can handle, and it may be challenging for a person who has been in prison for many years to obtain these benefits: they may have no resources, and their relatives may have abandoned them,” she said.

Gobierno debe detallar plan de liberación a presos sin sentencia y torturados: expertos was first published in La Silla Rota.

Translated and edited by Gabriela Olmos; edited by Kristen Butler