Mexico's president praises inmate amnesty as 'humanitarian act'

FILE PHOTO: Mexico's President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador holds a news conference at the National Palace in Mexico City, Mexico, March 17, 2020. REUTERS/Henry Romero/File Photo

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - A prisoner amnesty law in Mexico aimed at releasing non-violent inmates as a coronavirus containment measure won praise from President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador on Tuesday, coming as health authorities expect the virus to spread faster in the days ahead.

The Mexican Congress passed the amnesty late on Monday. It will allow for the release of low-level offenders, including those convicted of robbery and small-scale drug possession, as well women jailed on abortion charges. It will also apply to indigenous convicts who did not receive an adequate defense due to language barriers and those who were coerced to work with criminal gangs.

Lopez Obrador thanked lawmakers for the measure, calling it a “humanitarian act” that will not extend to dangerous criminals.

“This will allow us to free those who were not jailed for serious crimes and are sick or older,” Lopez Obrador told reporters at a morning news conference.

Senator Cristobal Arias, a member of Lopez Obrador’s leftist Morena party, said as many as 2,600 inmates across the country could be eligible for release under the law.

Mexico’s nearly 300 jails hold just above 200,000 inmates, according to government data.

To date, the country has about 8,700 confirmed cases of the coronavirus and more than 700 deaths as a result of the highly contagious COVID-19 respiratory disease it causes.

Last weekend, the country’s national human rights commission pushed lawmakers to take action in a bid to prevent transmission of the virus in jails, citing acute health risks posed by confined spaces and the lack of health-care resources faced by the prison population.

Reporting by Noe Torres and David Alire Garcia; Editing by Leslie Adler