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Mexico's former president can't be charged in killings, court rules

MEXICO CITY—Mexico's Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that former President Luis Echeverria can't be charged with genocide in connection with the killings of dozens of students in 1971, marking a setback for a federal probe into "dirty-war" crimes against government opponents 30 years ago.

The five-member court upheld by a 4-1 vote a lower court's decision to dismiss charges against Echeverria, 83, and 10 other government officials because Mexico's 30-year limit for prosecution had expired.

It's the second time the charges have been thrown out. The federal attorney general had appealed the lower court's ruling to the Supreme Court seven months ago, saying there was no statute of limitations on genocide in international conventions signed by Mexico.

The court ruled on only one of four arguments presented by special prosecutor Ignacio Carrillo. Though analysts doubt the ruling can be overturned, another judge will review the accuracy of the ruling and could determine whether the period for charging Echeverria could start in 1976, when he left office.

Prosecutors say that, in June 1971, Echeverria ordered a paramilitary group called the Falcons to attack a protest, resulting in the deaths of up to 40 students in what's called the "Corpus Christi massacre."

On Wednesday, the special prosecutor's office said it will continue to push to put Echeverria on trial.

"The case is not over. It's not closed. This was just one legal issue," said spokesman Eduardo Maldonado.

Echeverria is the first president in modern Mexico history to face indictment for human rights abuses.

President Vicente Fox named Carrillo, a lawyer, in 2001 to head the Special Prosecutor's Office for Social and Political Movements of the Past. The office is charged with investigating some 532 disappearances of students, insurgents or alleged sympathizers in the 1960s and 1970s.

Fox, elected in 2000, vowed to bring officials to justice for human rights violations during the period of rebellion that spread through Latin America. Torture, illegal arrests and disappearances were rampant at the hands of the military, special agents and intelligence police.

But Carrillo has been hampered by a lack of resources and cooperation from other agencies, including police officers who don't issue warrants. Only three government officials from the dirty war period have been jailed and face trial.

Prosecutors say national and international laws extend or preclude time limits on prosecuting genocide, defined by international conventions as an effort to "destroy one or more national groups."

The case against Echeverria constitutes genocide because the attacks were aimed at students, a national group, Carrillo says.

Echeverria's lawyers hailed Wednesday's ruling.

"They had 30 years to take this case to trial. They didn't. ... Now they can't," said defense attorney Juan Velasquez.

Outside the court, several dirty-war survivors called for Echeverria's imprisonment.

"Fascist Echeverria, your cell is ready," they chanted.

Carrillo plans to present genocide charges again soon for the 1968 massacre at a student rally in Mexico City. But Wednesday's Supreme Court ruling could make him change tactics in that case, in which Echeverria has also been implicated.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Luis Echeverria

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