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Mexican Court Clears Ex-Leader In '68 Massacre
Decision Is Setback for Rights Activists Seeking Justice for 'Dirty War' Atrocities

By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, July 13, 2007

MEXICO CITY, July 12 -- A Mexican court ruled Thursday that a 1968 student massacre was genocide because government officials plotted to "exterminate" demonstrators, but the court cleared former president Luis Echeverría of involvement.

At a news conference, Jesus Guadalupe Luna, chief judge in the case, did not name the government officials responsible for the genocide. But he said there was "absolutely" no evidence that Echeverría took part in the massacre, which occurred 10 days before Mexico City hosted the 1968 Olympics.

The decision not to try Echeverría is the latest in a series of setbacks for Mexican human rights activists, who have pressed for prosecutions in the student massacre and other alleged atrocities during Mexico's "dirty war" from 1960 to 1980. President Felipe Calderón this year closed the government office that was investigating the dirty war.

Echeverría, who is 85 and had a stroke last year, was notified of the decision at his home in southern Mexico City, where he has been under house arrest since November.

"Don Luis was very satisfied with the decision," Echeverría's attorney, Juan Velasquez, said in an interview.

One of the magistrates who handed down Thursday's decision is the author of a book dedicated to victims of the student massacre. Velasquez praised the magistrate for "putting aside his passions to apply the law."

The decision can be appealed, but human rights activists and Echeverría's defense team said it was unlikely that the ruling of the federal Third United Criminal Tribunal would be reversed.

"This sends the message that the powerful in Mexico are almost untouchable," Elena Poniatowska, a prominent human rights activist and author, said in an interview after the court's decision.

Despite the setbacks, Poniatowska, whose pioneering investigative reports alleged that high-ranking government officials ordered the massacre, said she and other activists will continue to press for other prosecutions.

No one is sure how many students died on Oct. 2, 1968, during demonstrations at La Plaza de las Tres Culturas -- Three Cultures Square -- in the Tlatelolco neighborhood of Mexico City. Most estimates place the death toll at 300 or more.

The massacre was a key moment in Mexico's student movement against the repressive government of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, and still resonates. This week, architect Rosa María Alvarado Martínez alleged that she unearthed three hidden victims of the massacre during demolition work related to the expansion of a Mexico City hospital.

Echeverría was Mexico's interior minister at the time of the massacre. He also has been accused by activists of human rights violations during his tenure as president from 1970 to 1976. He has always denied wrongdoing and on Thursday, Velasquez said, "Don Luis was feeling vindicated."

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