Pictured: Casto Hernández Hernández (right) with his pastor
Casto Hernández Hernández and his cousin Juan Placido Hernández Hernández were first imprisoned and then forcibly displaced in March 2015 after they refused to renounce their Protestant beliefs. Despite the open admission by a village leader in early court hearings that he had attempted to force the men to change their religious beliefs, the case dragged on for almost eleven months, with the Public Ministry repeatedly cancelling or postponing hearings [See more].
Agreement on religious freedom allows the men to return home
On 2 February, the Public Ministry in the state of Hidalgo, Mexico, reached a decision and put in place an agreement between Casto Hernández and Juan Placido Hernández and authorities from the village of Chichiltepec.
The agreement – drafted by the lawyers affiliated with CSW’s Mexican partner Impulso 18 and endorsed by the Public Ministry – guarantees total freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) in the village of Chichiltepec and Casto and Juan Placido’s right to return, with their full religious rights recognised.
According to the director of Impulso 18, Jorge Lee, the village authorities came to the meeting prepared to fight. When they realized they were ‘one step away from going to jail’, however, they changed their position, signed agreement and promised to uphold religious freedom in Chichiltepec.
While none of the village authorities spent any time in prison despite their criminal actions, we, and most importantly Casto and Juan Placido, feel that this agreed outcome is the right course of action.
It establishes their constitutional rights in a very clear way but also allows them to re-join their community in as harmoniously a way as possible. The concern was that if the authorities were thrown in prison, the levels of hostility would be so high, and the rupture in the indigenous community network so profound that it would be impossible for the two men to ever return home.
The wider significance of the agreement in Mexico
The case has ramifications beyond the personal impact on Casto and Juan Placido and on the village of Chichiltepec. It demonstrates that when victims of FoRB violations have effective legal representation, the law can be upheld.
One by one, cases like these which are successfully defended can contribute to the strengthening of rule of law in Mexico and respect for fundamental rights.
Unfortunately, while cases like this are all too common in many parts of Mexico, Casto and Juan Placido were unique in having good lawyers who understood the law as it applies to FoRB. Because the lawyers live in Mexico City, they were shielded from threats or pressure to which a local lawyer who lives and practices in the extremely corrupt region might have been vulnerable.
Good legal representation is imperative in defending FoRB
It’s a sad fact that in Mexico, justice can be elusive for victims of any type of crime, including human rights violations, if they cannot secure good legal representation. Since most of the victims of FoRB violations come from impoverished indigenous communities, they rarely have the resources necessary to hire a competent lawyer. Costs can skyrocket if, as happened in the case of Casto and Juan Placido, the local authorities drag out the process.
This time, CSW was able to help to facilitate financial aid through another NGO which paid the costs associated with court fees and for travel for the legal team, who only accepted a small stipend for nine months of work.
There are dedicated lawyers in Mexico who can take up these cases if contributions can be made toward the cost of pursuing them and they can receive some compensation for their time and work. The next challenge will be to seek larger sources of funding that can provide similar legal aid on a much wider scale. The need is great and growing – since the New Year there have already been two mass forced displacements in Oaxaca and Jalisco States respectively, and individuals in Hidalgo and Chiapas have been illegally imprisoned because of their religious beliefs.
By Anna-Lee Stangl, CSW’s Senior Advocate for the Americas