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Judge orders 13 Fox officials arrested over illicit exclusion of critical publisher from contracts

(CEPET/IFEX) - A federal judge has ordered the arrests of 13 former officials of the National Free Books Commission (Comisión Nacional de Libros Gratuitos, CONALITEG), including its ex-director Jorge Velasco y Félix, for the crime of abuse of power to the detriment of publisher Armando Prida Huerta, owner of "Síntesis" newspaper, which is sold in the cities of Puebla, Hidalgo and Tlaxcala. All of the officials worked under the Vicente Fox administration, and two of them allegedly are still government employees.

They are accused of having excluded Prida Huerta's company Encuadernaciones de Oriente from eight separate contract tendering processes, thereby causing him losses of potential income amounting to almost 140 million pesos (approx. US$13,000,000), reported "Reforma" newspaper on 30 January 2008.

The conflict between CONALITEG and the "Síntesis" owner began after the newspaper group published reports on CONALITEG's alleged mismanagement of funds and its awarding of million-peso contracts without a tendering process. The newspapers also reported on the illegal donation of public funds to the Vamos México foundation, founded by Fox's wife, Marta Sahagún.

CONALITEG is a public entity that distributes millions of books free of charge to primary and secondary schools.

Judge Verónica Sánchez Valle ordered the 13 arrested for the crime of abuse of authority, but declined to charge them with the more serious crime of conspiracy among public servants, which is a jailable offence. This means that the accused will be able to avoid jail.

The detention order was issued only days after the Mexican Association of Newspaper Editors (Asociación Mexicana de Editores de periódicos, AMEP), to which 150 newspapers from across the country, including "Síntesis", belong, published ads in the national media, complaining that, despite the fact that the case had been investigated and arrest warrants requested, the judge had refused to issue them.

The AMEP press release also condemned the tax harassment of the "Sínteses" director, apparently conducted with the collusion of CONALITEG's former director.

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