- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 30, 2014

MEXICO CITY (AP) - Lawmakers on Wednesday unanimously approved amendments to Mexico’s military justice code that will allow members of the armed forces who commit crimes against civilians to be tried in civilian courts, a historic change that human rights defenders have been demanding for years.

The changes were approved on a 428-0 vote in the House of Deputies. The measure, which passed unanimously in the Senate last week, is expected to be signed by President Enrique Pena Nieto.

Among the military code provisions changed is one saying that all crimes committed by soldiers on duty are considered crimes against military discipline. Human rights activists long argued that it allowed security forces to cover up crimes by taking over cases of troops accused of abusing, torturing and executing civilians.

The changes come after the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled in five cases filed by Mexicans who suffered abuse at the hands of soldiers. It ordered that those cases be tried in civilian courts and told Mexico to change its military code of justice.

One of those cases involved Valentina Rosendo, a Me’phaa Indian who was raped by soldiers in southern Guerrero state in 2002. She called the amendments a victory for victims.

“For us it is very important and we’re very happy that we achieved such an important step forward for all victims like us,” Rosendo said.

In 2002, Rosendo, who was then 17, was washing clothes in a river near her village when eight soldiers approached and asked her if she had seen a man with his face covered. When she told them she had not, two of the soldiers raped and beat her.

Her case went to a military court but no one was arrested. After the ruling by the regional rights court in 2010, a civilian court took over the case and two soldiers were arrested.

Nik Steinberg, senior Americas researcher for Human Rights Watch, said the reform will let victims of soldiers seek justice in a civilian justice system that, for all its flaws, is not rigged against them.

“Holding soldiers accountable for abuses is one of the most effective ways to help reduce widespread human rights violations by the military,” Steinberg wrote in an email. “It will now be up to civilian prosecutors to see to it that the huge backlog of military abuses is vigorously and effectively prosecuted.”

Mario Patron, deputy director of Mexico’s Human Rights Centre Miguel Agustin Pro Juarez, said the military code “was subjecting civilian victims to a jurisdiction that is neither independent nor impartial.”

He said the reform is a clear step forward, but suggested that cases of soldiers whose human rights have been violated by other soldiers should also go to civilian court.

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Associated Press writer Olga R. Rodriguez in Mexico City contributed to this report.