July 5, 2006

Ex-president declares innocence in Mexico massacre

By Lorraine Orlandi

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Former Mexican President Luis
Echeverria, under house arrest for a 1968 student massacre,
told a judge on Wednesday he was not guilty of genocide and
moved to have the charges dropped.

Echeverria, 84, made his first court declaration at home in
a private audience with the judge, who now has until Sunday to
decide whether to proceed with a trial or dismiss the case,
defense lawyer Juan Velasquez said.

The ex-president is being held under house arrest due to
his age and health concerns.

In a surprise ruling last week, two days before Mexico's
presidential election, an appeals court found enough evidence
to support a charge of genocide against Echeverria and ordered
the former leader's arrest and trial.

Echeverria, president from 1970 to 1976 at the height of a
so-called dirty war against leftists, denied any wrongdoing in
a written statement provided to Reuters by his lawyers.

"There is no proof that I was author of or participated in
a crime," he said in the statement to Judge Ranulfo Castillo.
Echeverria also argued no genocide occurred and too much time
has passed prosecute him.

He was interior minister in charge of national security
when government troops stormed a student rally in the capital
on October 2, 1968, days before the opening of the Mexico City
Olympics, in a tragedy that remains an open wound for many.

Officials said about 30 people were killed in what became
known as the Tlatelolco massacre. Witnesses and rights
activists put the death toll as high as 300.

Outside Echeverria's sprawling Mexico City residence,
survivors of the bloodshed demanded that his hearing be public.
They carried signs reading, "Prison for the assassin."

The arrest, after two failed attempts to charge Echeverria
with genocide, was a breakthrough in outgoing President Vicente
Fox's halting drive to punish those responsible for past
government brutality. Fox leaves office in December.

Prosecutors say Echeverria oversaw a systematic campaign to
wipe out dissidents under autocratic, one-party rule and
planned the 1968 crackdown with that in mind. His defense team
argued that the attack did not constitute genocide.

Evidence shows 43 protesters and troops were killed that
day in clashes but not as a result of any "state policy of
extermination," Echeverria's legal team said.

Judge Castillo had earlier rejected the genocide charge
against Echeverria but his decision was overturned on appeal.

Voters went to the polls on Sunday in the first
presidential election since 2000, when Fox ousted the
Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which ruled Mexico
for seven decades, at times using repression to crush dissent.

The latest election is seen as a test of Mexico's young
democracy. But on Wednesday the top contenders were running
neck-and-neck in a vote count drama riveting the nation.

(Additional reporting by Jorge Silva)