World Responds to Murder of Digna Ochoa, leading human rights lawyer

Jacob, Stephen

The Lawyers Weekly Vol. 21, No., 30 December 7, 2001

The year-old government of Mexican President Vicente Fox has come under heavy criticism in the aftermath of the October 19th murder of attorney and human rights activist Digna Ochoa, with denunciations and expressions of concern issued by Amnesty International, the US State Department, and Mary Robinson, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Lawyer’s Rights Watch Canada is demanding a full and effective investigation into the killing, and calling on the Mexican government to provide protection to other human rights workers believed to be in danger. Ochoa’s killers left a note behind warning: “If you continue, this will also happen to another.”

Mexico has a long record of human rights abuses developed over the 71 year rule of Mexico’s one-party government, the Institutional Revolutionary Party. During its reign, a former Mexican Army General, Jose Francisco Gallardo, publicly attributed the majority of Mexico’s human rights abuses to the army, including the execution and disappearance of civilians (he was subsequently imprisoned on embezzlement charges in 1993, a sentence he continues to serve). It is widely accepted that Ochoa was murdered for her work as a lawyer, which most recently included defending Teodoro Cabrera and Rodolfo Montiel, two peasant ecologists who claim the military tortured them to extract confessions on fabricated drug charges.

In response to the killing, Fox has commuted the sentences of Cabrera and Montiel, but human rights activists contend that not enough is being done. They criticize Fox for his failure to establish his promised Truth Commission, and for his controversial appointment of Rafael Marcial Maceda de la Concha, a former army general, as Federal Attorney General. No stranger to Ochoa and her work, Maceda de la Concha earlier this year disallowed expert testimony she submitted in the Cabrera/Montiel trial that supported the claim of state torture, and in May shelved the investigation into crimes against Ochoa, including numerous death threats and an attempt on her life in October 1999.

Days after Ochoa’s murder, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, for the second time, ordered the Mexican government to protect the lives of Ochoa’s colleagues at PRODH (the Miguel Augustin Pro Juarez Human Rights Center), and to investigate Ochoa’s murder, an order Mexico is bound by pursuant to the American Convention of Human Rights.

Lawyer’s Rights Watch Canada (LRWC), which assists lawyers and other human rights defenders threatened or sanctioned because of their advocacy, is calling on the Mexican government to act to protect the lives and professional integrity of Digna’s co-workers; ensure prosecutions and trials of those believed to be responsible; publicly condemn attacks against and harassment and intimidation of lawyers and other human rights defenders; and act to end impunity for human rights violators. For more information about Digna Ochoa and LRWC’s response to her murder contact

Stephen Jacob is a Vancouver-based freelance journalist, who volunteers at LRWC and the International Centre for Criminal Law Reform. He can be reached