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Digna Ochoa, Human Rights Champion, Murdered

by Confused Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2006 at 6:10 PM

On Friday, October 19, the world lost a courageous champion for human rights and justice and the Sierra Club lost a good friend. Ms. Digna Ochoa of Mexico -- a determined voice in support of dignity and basic human decency -- was found murdered by gunshot wounds in her office in Mexico City. Ms. Ochoa's death represents a serious challenge to the rule of law and the authority of the Mexican government, a challenge that is at once destabilizing and horrific in modern times.

Ms. Ochoa dedicated her life to representing victims of human rights abuses in Mexico, including Rodolfo Montiel and Teodoro Cabrera, two Mexican environmentalists wrongly convicted of charges they confessed to under duress of torture. While working for the Jesuit-run Miguel Agustin Pro Center for Human Rights (PRODH), Ms. Ochoa was the first lawyer to represent Mr. Montiel and Mr. Cabrera and led the effort to unearth clear and compelling evidence that the men were tortured until they signed blank pieces of paper later filled in with false confessions.

The story of oppression, threats, and terror in Mexico stands in stark contrast to the pleasant exchange of dialogue between President Fox and President George W. Bush during Fox's visit here to the U.S. for Bush's first State Dinner in early September. While President Bush has prioritized opening new trade as a means for improving relations with Mexico and with other countries of Latin America, he has not taken advantage of these negotiations to help promote improved environmental and human rights conditions in Mexico. The tragic death of Digna Ochoa illuminates the dire need for more attention to these issues.

The Sierra Club and Amnesty International's joint Human Rights and the Environment Program worked with Ms. Ochoa on the Montiel and Cabrera case and were honored to have Ms. Ochoa join us at the press conference here in Washington, DC, in 1999, celebrating the release of our joint report, "Environmentalists Under Fire: 10 Urgent Cases of Human Rights Abuses."

The outrageous circumstances of Ms. Ochoa's death reflect poorly on the progress the administration of President Vicente Fox has made to confront and resolve troubling human rights cases in Mexico. Even in the glow of President Fox's decision to release Messrs. Montiel and Cabrera, justice will not be done until those responsible for Ms. Ochoa's death and those who tortured Montiel and Cabrera are found and punished for their crimes.

As one of Mexico's most visible defenders of human rights, Ms. Ochoa was herself the victim of repeated death threats and was twice kidnapped. In August 1999, she was seized by two men, beaten and threatened with death. Two months later, in October 1999, three men entered Ms. Ochoa's house, blindfolded her and interrogated her for several hours. They bound her to her bed and locked her in a room with an open gas canister. Fortunately, she managed to escape.

As the threats continued, Ms. Ochoa came to the U.S. for several months out of fear for her life. She returned to Mexico in April 2001 and, for her own safety, formally disassociated herself from PRODH.

In spite of repeated warnings and admonitions from human rights organizations like Amnesty International, the Fox administration did not adequately investigate the threats against Ms. Ochoa and PRODH and no one was ever arrested for these crimes.

Found next to Ms. Ochoa's body was a letter warning the members of the human rights group, PRODH, that they were next, clear evidence that Ms. Ochoa's murder was no isolated event. In recent days, other credible threats have surfaced against members of Mexico's human rights community.

The Sierra Club mourns the loss of Ms. Digna Ochoa and hopes that her legacy of inspired support for victims of human rights abuses in Mexico serves as a wake up call for the Fox administration and for all the governments of this hemisphere engaged in diplomatic and trade relations with Mexico. It is now all the more urgent to recognize the harmful effects caused by the scourge of violence committed against the innocent in Mexico.

Digna Ochoa lives on in our hearts

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