Five years ago, Seattle University School of Law Prof. Tom Antkowiak was in Chiapas in southern Mexico doing migrants' rights work with a Mexican attorney, Ricardo Lagunes-Gasca, and human rights organizations when he first heard about the case of Ananías Laparra-Martínez.
Antkowiak learned that Chiapas police had illegally detained Laparra-Martínez in 1999 and beat him severely. They tortured his 14-year-old son in front of him and menaced his 16-year-old daughter with rape, all with the acquiescence of government prosecutors. Under this extreme duress, he was forced to sign documents confessing to a murder he did not commit. Three family members were similarly coerced into signing corroborating declarations.
Despite informing the presiding judge of these reprehensible tactics, no torture was investigated. Laparra-Martínez was convicted of murder on the basis of the illegally obtained and completely false declarations, and sentenced to more than 28 years in prison.
"After Ricardo and I examined the documents, it was clear that it was another case of tortured confession - a tactic sadly common in Mexico," said Antkowiak, who teaches the International Human Rights Clinic at Seattle University School of Law.
Today, Laparra-Martínez, 64, is a free man, thanks to the work of the clinic and its partners. The Mexican federal government representatives and officials from the state of Chiapas released Laparra-Martínez from prison in February. He had been incarcerated for more than 12 years for a crime that he did not commit.
"Mr. Laparra-Martinez and his family were in a particularly difficult situation," Antkowiak said. "Their own government had persecuted them at every turn and they were stigmatized in their community. No one believed that he was framed by police. But his family, especially his wife, Rosa, and his daughter Rocío, are incredibly strong and committed people. They have suffered so much, but never gave up."
The case has been years in the making. Antkowiak has been to Mexico many times, meeting Laparra-Martínez in prison and visiting his family. In 2008, Antkowiak and his clinic students began international litigation, which included students drafting a petition to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, in Washington, D.C.
"Mr. Laparra-Martínez was singled out by judicial police because he was an easy target. Powerless and poor, his arrest would cause no objection and would provide authorities an effortless conviction," Antkowiak said. "Coerced testimony is often permitted by Mexican courts, which foments widespread torture and other abusive practices by police."
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