Mexico jails soldiers for rape in first civil trial

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MONTERREY, Mexico, Oct 3 (Reuters) A Mexican court has sentenced four soldiers to up to 40 years in prison for raping nine women in 2006, the first time troops have been tried in a civilian court, a judge said.

Judge Hiradier Huerta in the northern state of Coahuila told Reuters he sentenced the soldiers for raping the women last July in the mining city of Monclova.

The case went to a civilian court because the soldiers' abandoned their posts and the crimes were not linked in any way to their duties in the military, he said yesterday.

''This is a watershed, the first case handled by a civil judge against members of the military'' in Mexico, Huerta said.

The case is particularly relevant because the military faces accusations of human rights abuses in its fight against drug cartels, mainly in the western state of Michoacan.

The soldiers can still appeal the case in Mexico's Supreme Court and be tried in a military court.

Mexico's military courts, which are closed to the public, have very rarely tried soldiers accused of human rights abuses.

Huerta is due to rule later on the case of three other soldiers accused of raping another woman in Monclova on the same day.

President Felipe Calderon has been criticized by Amnesty International and other rights groups for using the military to combat Mexico's drug traffickers.

Some 2,000 people have been killed in Mexico so far in 2007, as a drive by the Sinaloa alliance of cartels headed by Joaquin ''Shorty'' Guzman -- Mexico's most wanted man -- tries to dominate the Mexican drug trade against rivals.

Mexico's Human Rights Commission and the United Nations say using troops to combat drug capos is the wrong strategy because heavy-handed soldiers are likely to cause rights violations.

Reuters SBA VP0420

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