International Human Rights Clinic secures release for man unjustly imprisoned in Mexico
Five years ago, Professor Tom Antkowiak was 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 over 28 years in jail.
"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. 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 Rocio, 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."
The United Nations, Human Rights Watch and several other organizations have condemned Mexican security forces for their systematic use of torture to obtain confessions.
A turning point in the case was the presentation of the Clinic's petition to the Inter-American Commission. A number of law students contributed to the preparation of the extensive submission. The Commission eventually ordered the State of Mexico to improve Laparra-Martínez's detention conditions and medical treatment. The Clinic then leveraged the international decision against government authorities.
"The Commission's decision gave us a new and meaningful opportunity to negotiate with officials from the state and federal governments," said Alejandra Gonza, co-counsel in the case. After an intense period of negotiations - with key support from Lagunes-Gasca, the Clinic's partner attorney in Mexico, and the Mexican Commission for the Defense and Promotion of Human Rights - the Clinic secured Laparra-Martínez's outright release.
Garrett Oppenheim '08 was one of the original Clinic students on the case and has stayed very involved. Oppenheim said working in the International Human Rights Clinic was the high point in his law school experience. He volunteers regularly with International Bridges to Justice and the King County Housing Justice Project.
"One of the most important things I've done in my life is to have had the privilege of having worked on his case," Oppenheim said. "As I have said many times, the heroes of the case are his wife and daughter, Rocío and Rosa, whose courage in the face of an unjust system brought his plight international recognition. It was an honor to have been associated with such bravery and to have been able to play even a small role in assisting their crusade."
The Clinic and its partners will continue to work on behalf of Laparra-Martínez and his family so that the Mexican government will provide them full remedies for the severe human rights abuses they have suffered since 1999. These efforts include pending litigation before the Inter-American Commission, as well as initiatives with various Mexican authorities.
Antkowiak has extensive experience in global and regional human rights systems. Before joining the faculty, he was a senior attorney at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights of the Organization of American States and served as a special assistant to Oscar Arias, Nobel Peace Laureate and President of Costa Rica.
He has provided numerous opportunities for students to be exposed to international human rights cases, including presenting oral arguments before the Inter-American Commission that challenged Peru's attempts to open the Amazon to resource extraction without duly consulting indigenous communities, and taking students, including Oppenheim, to argue before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in Costa Rica, the highest tribunal for human rights matters in the hemisphere.
The Clinic has also worked with the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights, providing technical assistance to enable the Commission to work with the new African Court on Human Rights. Both provide human rights protection for the entire continent of Africa.
"The Ronald A. Peterson Law Clinics generally take the cases of the indigent and vulnerable," Antkowiak said. "Our students are committed to helping these populations at home and abroad."