A judge in Mexico City ordered authorities to temporarily halt screenings of an acclaimed documentary about the failings of Mexico’s justice system after a prosecution witness who appears in the film alleged that his privacy rights were violated.
The ruling is the latest round in a heated debate over reform of Mexico’s secretive, antiquated justice system, which critics say routinely violates the rights of defendants or fails to convict those who are guilty.
"Presunto Culpable," or "Presumed Guilty," centers on 26-year-old Antonio Zuniga, who was convicted of a 2005 murder on scant evidence. Zuniga’s conviction was eventually overturned, a process documented by his lawyers, who filmed the hearings with the permission of the judge.
The film opened across Mexico on Feb. 18 to wide acclaim. A complaint filed by chief prosecution witness Victor Manuel Reyes Bravo, a relative of the victim, alleges that his right to privacy was violated, the federal Judiciary Council said.
Mexico City Mayor Marcelo Ebrard said in a message posted on his Twitter account Thursday that his administration would appeal the ruling, which he called "an abuse against freedom."
Mexico’s federal Interior Department, which also promised to appeal, declared it does not have the authority to pull films from theaters.
A hearing on the complaint is scheduled for March 11. In the meantime, Cinepolis, the theater chain showing the documentary, said it "will continue to show the movie until we receive a formal judicial or administrative order to stop showing it." The filmmakers posted a similar statement on their website.
Hector Villarreal, the assistant Interior secretary for media, called the judge’s ruling "confused, ambiguous, dark" and said "the film should continue to be shown in theaters" until the judge clears up the ruling.
It is the first time in recent memory that a judge in Mexico had ordered a movie pulled.
In past decades, the Mexican government sometimes blocked movies it deemed politically sensitive from being shown, but did so behind the scenes with a combination of financial and political muscle. At the time it owned, financed or tightly regulated much of the movie industry.
The Federal Judiciary Council, which oversees courts in Mexico, issued a statement Thursday strongly denying that anyone in the court system was trying to censor the movie.
The council said it had organized showings of the film for its own personnel, saying it contained important information.
Instead, the council said the issues involved a clash of competing rights, freedom of expression vs. privacy, that the judge would have to sort out.
The filmmakers, in a statement posted on their website, said the movie would continue to be shown until they receive a court or government order.
Carlos Ibarra, the publicist for the film, said the filmmakers did not seek permission or get release forms from witnesses because "they didn’t need to. Trials are public processes, and they can be filmed."
In fact, that is one of the main messages of "Presumed Guilty" — that greater transparency and openness can improve a system in which most convictions are not based on physical evidence, and defendants are vulnerable to unfounded claims. A message in the film’s credits advises viewers to demand their legal hearings be recorded.
In the movie, some of the prosecution witnesses can be heard complaining about being filmed. Most do not come off well. Some stumble over evidentiary details or say "I don’t remember" when asked about their testimony. The prosecutor in the trial advances almost no arguments to support her case.
Activist and writer Homero Aridjis suggested Reyes Bravo’s complaint is not about privacy rights, but more likely the fact the documentary has embarrassed some officials. In the film, he said, Reyes Bravo "doesn’t seem like someone who is very concerned about his image."
"Presumed Guilty" has been honored with prizes at several film festivals, receiving the audience award for best international feature at the 2010 Los Angeles Film Festival.
Mexico has taken steps to overhaul its justice system. In 2008, the northern border state of Chihuahua became the first to implement judicial reforms, embedded in Mexico’s constitution, that more closely resemble the United States’ legal system. Though there are no juries, lawyers question and cross-examine witnesses in open court, and defendants are innocent until proven guilty.
Yet, Mexicans were outraged by the result of an early case under the new system: Marisela Escobedo Ortiz, who publicly protested the acquittal of a man accused of killing her daughter, was gunned down in December on a street in Chihuahua’s Ciudad Juarez.
The judges who acquitted the man suspected in the death of the daughter said the reformed rules had forced them to throw out evidence that might have been accepted under the old, closed system.