MEXICO CITY (AP) — Mexico's supreme court said Tuesday that cases involving military violations of the civil rights of citizens should be tried in civilian courts, as recommended by an international tribunal.
But the justices stopped short of automatically taking all such cases out of military courts, something human rights activists have demanded. The issue has become the subject of heated debate following the government's decision in 2006 to deploy tens of thousands of troops to fight drug cartels.
Some soldiers involved in the war on organized crime and drug traffickers have been accused of opening fire on civilians at checkpoints, conducting illegal searches and detentions, and other abuses. Until now, almost all such cases have wound up in military tribunals.
"It was decided by a unanimous vote of 10 justices that Mexican judges should apply the criteria of restricting military justice in future cases," according to a statement from the court.
Mexican courts must take into account a 2009 Inter-American Human Rights Court decision that says such cases don't belong in military courts, which instead should focus on their main purpose of handling internal military discipline cases, according to the justices.
The 2009 ruling involved the case of a guerrilla sympathizer kidnapped and presumably killed in southern Mexico by government forces in 1974.
The justices are expected to continue discussing the issue Thursday.
While it doesn't set a binding precedent, human rights activists and lawyers applauded the supreme court statement.
"We like it, and we hope that it begins to be applied as soon as possible," said human rights lawyer Andres Diaz. He noted that the statement opens the possibility for victims to appeal to the supreme court to oppose military trials in rights cases, and that under Mexican law precedent could be created if enough such appeals succeed.
Quetzalcoatl Fontanot, a spokesman for the Miguel Agustin Pro Human Rights Center, said there still appeared to be some potential loopholes in court's position.
"It's good, but it's not over yet," said Fontanot, noting "there are some details."
He noted that prosecutors, detectives and police — the very people who first refer a case to either civilian or military courts — might argue that they are not bound by the court's statement, since they are not part of the judiciary.
President Felipe Calderon has been a staunch defender of the military's role in the anti-drug offensive, saying the troops are needed to take on heavily-armed drug traffickers.
In October, he sent to the Senate a proposal to revise the jurisdiction of military courts, to allow civilian courts to investigate disappearances, torture and rape committed by military personnel against civilians, but not other crimes like homicide.
At least 35,000 people have been killed in drug violence in Mexico since late 2006, when Calderon launched his crackdown.