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MEXICO: Journalist acquitted after three years in prison; fears for safety

Wednesday 18 May 2011 - 1:00am

Update #1 to RAN 36/08 18 May 2011

The Writers in Prison Committee of International PEN (WiPC) is pleased to report that El Tiempo journalist and director Jesús Lemus Barajas, jailed since May 2008, was finally acquitted of drug trafficking charges and released on 11 May 2011. However, the WiPC is deeply concerned that he has been held for three years when there was apparently a complete lack of evidence against him. It is also alarmed that Lemus now reportedly fears for his safety to the extent that he is planning to go into exile. It calls on the Mexican authorities to launch an independent enquiry into Lemus' case and to provide the journalist with protection as well as compensation for his arbitrary detention.

Jesús Lemus Barajas, editor and publisher of the Michoacán-based daily newspaper El Tiempo, was arrested on 7 May 2008 while investigating drug trafficking routes in Cuerámaro, Guanajuato state, and accused of involvement in trade for ‘The Family', an offshoot of the powerful El Golfo (Gulf) drug cartel. Lemus was detained incommunicado for 48 hours by Guanajuato state ministerial police, who reportedly beat him. On 27 May 2008 he was transferred to a high-security federal prison in Puente Grande, in the neighbouring state of Jalisco.

It was feared that the charges against Lemus were fabricated and that his arrest and imprisonment were related to his legitimate activities as a journalist. In addition to his reporting on drug trafficking, in March 2008 he had exposed harassment of the media by the mayor of La Piedad, where El Tiempo is based, which led to the detention of two of his reporters on charges of ‘incitement to rebellion'. He had also been critical of unfair allocation of official advertising in the municipality and of police intimidation of El Tiempo news vendors. Lemus' wife reportedly suffered harassment while he was in detention and on 31 August 2009 his lawyers were shot dead. The motive for their murder was not known.

On 11 May 2011, after three years in prison, Lemus was released due to lack of evidence. According to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), the Guanajuato state judge's ruling stated: "Considering that there are no grounds for even the least suspicion that [Lemus] was linked to drug trafficking or organized crime activities, he is absolved of all charges and is given an acquittal." A 20-year prison sentence handed to Lemus by another Guanajuato state judge in January 2011 was reportedly overturned.

Following his release, Lemus said that he believes he was arrested because of his journalistic work exposing the links between the Mexican state and drug cartels and that the authorities had failed to recognize that he was a professional journalist during his trial. He also said that he felt unsafe in Mexico and intended to apply for asylum in the USA or another country.

Useful links

•Report on Lemus' release by Reporters Without Borders (17 May 2011): English, Spanish, French