'I have to keep fighting': Mexicans wait for years behind bars for a trial

MEXICO CITY, Sept 28 (Reuters) - Ana Georgina Dominguez has not seen her children in 13 years since she was thrown in jail for a crime Mexican prosecutors have still not proven she committed.

Arrested when she was just 25 years old on money laundering charges, Dominguez is one of tens of thousands of Mexican suspects stuck in so-called pre-trial detention, trapped in a judicial limbo behind bars.

She stands accused of running high-level financial accounting for a drug cartel.

"I didn't even finish high school," Dominguez, now 40, said in a phone interview from the medium-security penitentiary in Toluca city.

Forty percent of Mexican prisoners are currently awaiting trial, putting it among the top third of countries worldwide for pre-trial detention and worse than chronic-offenders Iran and Zimbabwe, according to data from London-based Institute for Criminal Policy Research.

More than 92,000 jailed Mexican suspects are awaiting trial, the Institute estimates.

Dominguez is also among those who has spent longer in jail waiting for a trial than if any sentence had been doled out: she faced just an eight-year prison term if convicted.

Mexican human rights group Prodh have called for her release, saying she was tortured, sexually assaulted, and forced to sign key documents.

Prosecutors did not respond when asked for comment about Dominguez's case.

DETAINED WITHOUT TRIAL

Soldiers burst into Dominguez's home in the Gulf coast state of Veracruz to detain her early one morning in 2009.

The "worst part" was having her children, then aged 5 and 11, witness her arrest, she said, adding that she later heard a commander admit the wrong person had been arrested.

Dominguez said she was told that the key piece of evidence against her was testimony from an unidentified witness, though she later countered this with an alibi.

Mexico's pre-trial backlog has not been aided in recent years by its extended policy of "automatic" detention.

Since 2019, "no-bail" rules have been automatically applied to 16 offenses, including misuse of public funds and fuel theft, far beyond the "exceptional" cases permitted in international treaties.

"Many Mexicans spend more than a decade deprived of their liberty, awaiting trial without sentence," Miriam Estrada-Castillo, an official with a United Nations working group on arbitrary detention, said earlier this month.

Mexico's Supreme Court this month debated the constitutionality of the pre-trial detention policy, but it made no ruling due to lack of consensus among the jurists.

Leftist President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has not proposed any reforms to the policy, having long pointed to Mexico's high crime rate to defend mass pre-trial detention.

The policy is also used to prevent suspects from "fleeing justice, or from attacking victims or threatening witnesses,” according to an Interior Department statement.

It remains unclear how long suspects typically remain jailed awaiting trial, since the government does not release the data.

But a two-year limit for pre-trial detentions set out by law has clearly been breached in cases like Dominguez's, who counts federal public defense head Netzai Sandoval as a supporter.

"We trust that very soon we'll be able to put an end to this injustice," Sandoval wrote in a post on Twitter.

One of the two legal charges Dominguez faced was thrown out in February on procedural grounds, and a judge is now weighing up the final charge.

If that too is dismissed, a weary but determined Dominguez hopes she could be reunited with her family by Christmas.

"It's hard," she said, "but I have to keep fighting."

(This story fixes spelling of Prodh)

Reporting by Isabel Woodford; Editing by David Alire Garcia and Stephen Coates

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