Court throws out rape, trafficking charges against leader of Mexico-based church

By Dan Whitcomb

LOS ANGELES, April 7 (Reuters) - A California appeals court on Tuesday threw out criminal charges including rape and human trafficking against the leader of a Mexico-based church, ruling he was denied his right to a speedy preliminary hearing in the high-profile case.

The ruling appears to mean that Naason Joaquin Garcia, head and self-styled apostle of the Guadalajara-based evangelical church La Luz del Mundo (Light of the World), must be released from custody.

A spokeswoman for the California Attorney General's Office, which filed the charges against Garcia, 50, and two co-defendants, said only that prosecutors were "reviewing the court's decision."

The church referred questions from Reuters about the case to Garcia's attorney, who could not be reached for comment on Tuesday. The next hearing in the case is scheduled for May 8 in Los Angeles.

La Luz del Mundo is the largest evangelical church in Mexico, dating back to 1920s. The church, which now has branches in 50 countries and boasts more than 5 million members, rejects a mainstream Christian doctrine of the Holy Trinity, adhering to what its leaders say are the earliest Christian teachings.

The unusual ruling by the California Second District Court of Appeals stems from a string of delays in the case since the attorney general's office filed charges in June 2019 against Garcia, along with Alondra Ocampo and Susana Medina Oaxaca.

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The three defendants were accused of committing 26 felony crimes in Southern California between 2015 and 2018, listing three minors and a woman as victims of the sexual abuse. A fourth defendant, Azalea Rangel Melendez, remains a fugitive. There was no immediate indication whether the three co-defendants would also be released.

Following his arrest, Garcia was ordered held on $50 million bail, which prosecutors said reflected fears Garcia would flee to Mexico using church funds.

According to the appeals court's 33-page written ruling, a Los Angeles judge who postponed proceedings in the complex case several times failed to give Garcia his right to a speedy preliminary hearing and did not obtain a waiver of that right from the defendant. In February, a 33-year-old U.S. woman, Sochil Martin, sued La Luz del Mundo church leaders, claiming they enslaved, sexually abused and trafficked her from childhood until she fled some three years ago.

"The (appeals court decision) does not judge Naason Joaquin Garcia for his guilt or innocence, but addresses a procedural technicality," Martin's attorney said in a written statement. "It does nothing to change the fact that for years, as the leader of the La Luz del Mundo, he sexually, physically and emotionally abused hundreds of minors and adults."

(Reporting by Dan Whitcomb; editing by Bill Tarrant and Jane Wardell)

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