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Indian Congress Rejects Rights Bill

April 29, 2001

MEXICO CITY (AP) _ After four hours of fiery debate, Mexico’s lower house of Congress on Saturday overwhelmingly approved a revised Indian rights bill that supporters called historic and opponents decried as an insult to the country’s 10 million Indians.

The bill _ approved 386-60, with two abstentions _ was revived last year by President Vicente Fox as part of his effort to make peace with the Zapatista rebels, who launched a rebellion seven years ago in impoverished Chiapas state. Last month, masked Zapatistas marched into Mexico City to lobby for the measure.

There was no immediate response from the rebels. Indian leaders said Friday that they would stage marches next week in favor of restoring the bill’s original text. They say the bill approved Saturday weakens proposed guarantees for legal autonomy, territory and natural resources.

The initiative, a constitutional amendment, must be approved by both houses of Congress and a majority of state legislatures before it can become law.

After several weeks of debate and drafting, the Senate approved the revised version 109-0 on Wednesday.

A joint congressional committee representing Fox’s National Action Party and the former ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, largely recommended the Senate version Thursday after a bitter debate and vehement opposition by the leftist Labor and Democratic Revolution parties, which voted against the measure Saturday.

``With this initiative, they have killed the aspirations of the indigenous communities to convert into reality the recognition of their rights and their cultures,″ Democratic Revolution Party representative Hector Sanchez Lopez said Saturday, tying a black band around the congressional microphone in protest.

``We will fight like tigers″ to pass a law that is more just, Sanchez said.

The Senate version ``should be revised and rectified, because if it isn’t, the Indian reform will be born dead,″ said Labor Party representative Felix Castellanos Hernandez.

The lower house debated the bill Saturday after rejecting a motion to suspend the vote _ a request aimed at allowing various parties to meet and reach a consensus on a bill that would meet Zapatista approval.

But Arturo Escobar y Vega of the Green Party, which backed the Senate version, said: ``The large majority of the federal legislators believe that these constitutional reforms are positive. The constitutional reforms that we vote on today finally recognize the right of Indian communities to free determination.

``We are aware that these reforms aren’t perfect; however ... they are a search for justice and development and the recognition of the indigenous communities,″ Escobar said.

Escobar then placed a green ribbon on the podium to signify the bill’s hope. The House leader later ordered both ribbons removed.

The bill approved Saturday could have implications far beyond Indian rights.

It would ban discrimination based on ethnic origin, gender, age, capacity, social class, health, religion, marital status or ``anything else that violates human dignity with the object of annulling or reducing the rights and liberties of people.″

Mexican employers commonly specify the age, gender, appearance and even marriage status of people they want to hire.

The first version of the bill was drafted to enact agreements reached in 1996 by rebel and government negotiators to end the rebellion. Then-President Ernesto Zedillo balked at passing the measure, saying it could create legal conflicts and raised questions about Mexican sovereignty.

Fox, pushing to settle the rebellion, made the bill his first proposal to Congress in December.

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