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Mexican panel votes to strip mayor of political immunity

MEXICO CITY—A congressional committee on Friday voted to strip leftist Mexico City Mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of political immunity, setting the stage for his possible indictment and conviction on contempt of court charges, which would bar him from seeking the presidency next year.

After nearly six hours of deliberations, the four-member committee voted 3-1 that there was enough evidence to show the mayor could be charged with violating a March 14, 2001, court order to stop constructing an access road to a hospital.

The vote is an opinion, not a formal charge, and it will be taken in the near future to the 500-member Congress for approval or dismissal. If Congress agrees with the committee's vote, the mayor will face trial and could be jailed.

The only dissenting vote was from Horacio Duarte, of the mayor's leftist Democratic Revolutionary Party. The committee also consisted of two members from the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, and one from President Vicente Fox's conservative National Action Party, or PAN.

Lopez Obrador has insisted that the PRI, which held the presidency for 71 years, Fox and PAN trumped the allegations to keep him from the political arena. Polls consistently show the mayor leading the other potential presidential candidates: Interior Minister Santiago Creel, of PAN, and PRI national leader Roberto Madrazo.

"This is the first step of an unjust, authoritarian and anti-democratic action," the mayor said at a news conference after the vote. "People thought they wouldn't dare vote against me, and my opponents said I was acting like a victim."

Fox, who by law is barred from seeking re-election, had no immediate comment. Neither did the PRI or other committee members.

Rumors were floating before the vote that the odds were against the mayor, 52, a business administrator and political scientist who rules over one of the world's largest metropolises and often clashes with the federal government.

At his usual morning news conference Friday, the mayor compared himself to slain U.S. civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.

"I remind you that the first time Luther King was jailed was because he was accused of speeding, and he went to jail many times afterwards for defending human rights," the mayor said.

The mayor said he was "strengthening myself morally" to go to jail.

Thousands of the mayor's supporters began amassing in the capital's main Zocalo Plaza and other public squares to protest the "desafuero," the Spanish legal term for taking political immunity away from a public servant, which politicians here enjoy to avoid frivolous suits.

The mayor and his supporters called for peaceful protests, but there were fears they could turn violent. More than 500 police were dispersed throughout the capital to keep the peace.

"Now nobody is going to believe in any politician. We were supposed to have democracy, but it's the same as before," said Margarita Rodriguez, a maid with four children. "The mayor has done more for people than anyone, giving more money to the poor, the elderly, single women. Nobody did that before."

The mayor has a huge following since he took office in 2002, the same year as Fox, because he has spent much of his budget on social programs and construction projects.

The committee's vote came after federal Attorney General Rafael Macedo de Concha accused the mayor of ignoring a court order to stop building an access road to a Hospital in northwestern Mexico City. The mayor and the construction company say they ceased work when the court order came. Today, the access road is unfinished and filled with debris and garbage.

The committee's vote now goes before Congress, where the mayor's party is also outnumbered—the PRI holds 222 seats, the PAN 151, and the mayor's faction 95. Still, it remains to be seen how Congress will act. Almost half of PRI lawmakers and a sizable number from the PAN have said the case lacks legal evidence.

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

ARCHIVE PHOTO on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Obrador

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): MEXICO

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