Hit Documentary Critical of Mexico's Legal System Pulled from Theaters

It was the second most popular movie in Mexico this past weekend, but due to a court ruling, the documentary “Presunto Culpable” ("Presumed Guilty") was pulled from theaters on Monday.

The acclaimed documentary focuses on the failings of Mexico's justice system. The Cinepolis theater chain was responding to a court ruling on a complaint from a prosecution witness.

"Presunto Culpable" and the legal case against it have drawn renewed attention to Mexico's secretive, antiquated justice system, which critics say routinely violates the rights of defendants or fails to convict those who are guilty.

Cinepolis announced it was pulling the film hours after the Interior Department said it had temporarily revoked the permit for the documentary. Both the theater chain and the Interior Department said they must comply with a judge's order ordering a halt to screenings but would challenge the ruling.

"We profoundly regret that because of this judicial order, thousands of Mexican will lose the opportunity to know the reality of our system of criminal justice," Cinepolis said in a statement.

The film centers on 26-year-old Antonio Zúñiga, who was convicted of a 2005 murder on scant evidence. Zúñiga's conviction was eventually overturned, a process documented by his lawyers, who filmed the hearings with the permission of the trail judge.

The documentary, which received the audience award for best international feature at the 2010 Los Angeles Film Festival, opened across Mexico on Feb. 18. It was the second-most viewed film in the country over the weekend, behind the animated movie "Rango," according to the National Chamber of Cinematography.

Last week, a judge in Mexico City ordered authorities to halt showings pending hearings on a complaint filed by chief prosecution witness Victor Manuel Reyes Bravo, a relative of the victim. Reyes Bravo alleges his right to privacy was violated.

The Interior Department initially said the ruling was confusing and the film should continue to be shown in theaters until the judge cleared it up.

But Deputy Interior Secretary Hector Villareal told Radio Formula on Monday that the judge reiterated the order Monday, and the government would comply. He said the government is appealing.

Carlos Ibarra, the publicist for the film, has said the filmmakers did not need to seek permission or get release forms from witnesses because trials are public processes.

One of the main messages of "Presumed Guilty" is 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.

Mexico has taken steps to overhaul its justice system. In 2008, the northern border state of Chihuahua became the first to implement judicial reforms 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 considered innocent until proven guilty.

All of Mexico's 32 states much adopt the new system by 2016.

Based on reporting by The Associated Press.

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