Thursday, June 19, 2008

Mexico approves shift to more open, adversarial court system

Truly historic news from south of the Rio Grande this morning, via AP:
President Felipe Calderon on Tuesday signed landmark judicial legislation that allows U.S.-style public trials and creates a presumption of innocence for the accused.

Under the long-awaited constitutional amendments, guilt or innocence no longer will be decided behind closed doors by a judge relying on written evidence.

Prosecutors and defense lawyers will argue their cases in court, and judges must explain their decisions to defendants.

"Now we can offer citizens a more transparent judicial system that respects human rights and protects your rights with more speed and efficiency," Calderon said.

The law is expected to take effect Thursday. But it is unclear how quickly public trials will begin. The law says the changes must be implemented by 2016.

Thousands of lawyers and judges must be trained on the logistics of holding a trial. Courthouses must be modified to make room for participants.

It probably will take even longer to change the treatment of the accused in Mexico, where suspects are routinely paraded before cameras -- sometimes holding weapons they are accused of using in crimes -- even before they have been charged.
The old system "encouraged corruption and led to many wrongful convictions," say legal observers, but even so it will remain in place for years to come. A change this dramatic can't be initiated by fiat when Mexico doesn't have lawyers or judges trained in the procedures. Indeed, one can envision a lot of chaos during the transition if things aren't managed exceptionally well.

At the LA Times, Deborah Bonnello gives a little more detail and identifies initial criticisms of the proposal:

A plan for warrantless searches was dropped after human rights groups protested, according to the New York Times.

But Human Rights Watch still objects to certain elements of the judicial reform, which includes the ability to hold people suspected of participating in organized crime for up to 80 days without trial.

"This proposed 80-day limit for pre-charge detention would be, by far, the longest of its kind in any Western democracy," said José Miguel Vivanco, executive director of the Americas division of the rights group, in a letter to Calderon.

"Detention without charge for such a long period of time violates the fundamental right to liberty and security of the person and the associated protections against arbitrary detention enshrined in international law. Even if exceptional, this 80-day limit is excessive."

Effecting this transformation in the midst of ongoing cartel wars will be an immense challenge, and The Mex Files fears the involvement of the Army will delay needed changes. I'll be interested in learning more details about what they did and how implementation plays out.

RELATED: Crime and Punishment in Mexico: The big picture beyond drug cartel violence

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