Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Mexicans prepare to testify in Malaysian drug case, facing death penalty

Enfrentan tres mexicanos en malasia cargos que llevan pena de muerte; serán juzgados esta semana y tienen derecho de declararse

Kuala Lumpur -- Three Mexican men facing the death penalty in a Malyasian criminal court will finally get the chance to tell their side of the story this week. But if the court rejects their testimony, they'll be one step closer to the gallows.

The accused are brothers Jose Regino Gonzalez Villarreal, 36, Simon Gonzalez Villarreal, 33, and Luis Alfonso Gonzalez Villarreal, 47, all from the western state of Sinaloa on Mexico's Pacific coast. Together with two Malaysians, they were arrested and charged in March 2008 with manufacturing and possessing methamphetamine and precursor chemicals (used to make the meth), and with narcotics trafficking. They have been in custody for almost four years. The men were detained only weeks after arriving in this southeast Asian nation.

Prosecutors say the Mexicans and the two Asians were arrested with a large quantity of drugs and cash. If they are convicted, the only punishment under Malaysia's draconian drug laws is execution by hanging. Two other Mexicans arrested in connection with the case were released for lack of evidence and deported.

Defense attorneys have challenged forensic test results of the chemicals which were seized when the men were detained, and have alleged that about a third of the materials disappeared while in police custody, preventing the court's analysis of all the evidence. They have also complained about the man who will preside over the trial, known as Malaysia's "hanging judge" for the numerous death sentences he has imposed.

In December the Federal Court of Malaysia rejected all of those arguments after the men sought a ruling, known as a peremptory writ, which would have prevented the case from going forward. But the same tribunal may review the legal points again after proceedings in the lower court have been completed. The Federal Court ordered that the case be tried, but attorneys for the men said that in the event of a conviction, their arguments were preserved for further judicial consideration. The Federal Court is the highest in the nation.

Criminal trials in this former British colony are conducted in accord with English common law traditions and precedent. They resemble American, Canadian or Commonwealth proceedings, with many constitutional protections. But they are not identical, and some legal authorities have complained that Malaysian courts are not sufficiently independent from other governmental institutions in the country. Malaysian drug trafficking laws are among the most severe in the world, and even the petty possession of narcotics can be punished by execution or a long prison sentence. In recent years courts here have shown no mercy for foreign nationals charged with such offenses. Several have been hanged.

Update Feb. 9: Testimony concluded today and the "hanging judge" adjourned the case until March 26, on which date he'll hear closing arguments. Prosecutors presented evidence that the defendants were in possession of 29 kilograms of methamphetamine when they were arrested in a shipyard warehouse, together with drug manufacturing equipment. The accused Mexicans testified that they had been hired to clean trash from the area where the contraband was discovered and had no knowledge of the drugs, but forensic testing indicated traces of the chemicals on their clothing and bodies. About a third of the meth disappeared after the arrest, prompting defense attorneys to demand that the entire case be dismissed. That's one of the issues the judge will have to decide.

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