The Legal Case Against Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada Moves into High Gear

Can former heads of state be held legally accountable for human rights abuses they committed while in office?

The issue of ‘impunity’ has hung over Latin America in particular for a long time. With the arrest of Chile’s Augusto Pinochet at the bequest of Spanish prosecutors in 1998, a new legal era of accountability was born affecting former leaders who once assumed themselves immune from accountability. The past month has seen the move for accountability move into overdrive. Peru’s ex-President, Alberto Fujimori, was extradited back to Peru from Chile, where he faces criminal prosecution for human rights abuses. Also in Chile, where General Pinochet himself escaped prosecution by dying, his widow and children were arrested last week on corruption charges.

This month Bolivia will commemorate the fourth anniversary of the public ouster of President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada. As it remembers the bloody days of October 2003, legal moves against its former-president and one of his top aides have also moved back into high gear and into the headlines both in Bolivia and the U.S.

Sánchez de Lozada fled Bolivia on October 17, 2003 following his government’s bloody repression of protests against his plan to export the nation’s natural gas at bargain prices to the U.S. through Chile. Sixty-seven people were killed and more than 400 wounded. Since then the former head of state has been living in self-imposed exile in suburban Maryland, resisting Bolivian court orders to return for testimony and trial, and protected by the Bush administration.

Two important legal developments suggest that Sánchez de Lozada’s Chevy Chase retirement may not go as smoothly as he had hoped.

The Criminal Case

For four years the families of the victims of October 2003 have campaigned to extradite Sánchez de Lozada, along with two aides, through a criminal case in the Bolivian court system. In 2005 Bolivia’s Congress, still controlled by the former president’s own party, authorized the prosecution and shortly afterwards the Bolivian Supreme Court issued an order commanding Sánchez de Lozada to return to Bolivia to provide testimony in the case. Following international law, that order was formally transmitted to the U.S. government, which bore responsibility to serve the notification to its Maryland visitor. Two years later, the Bush Administration had still refused to serve those papers.

In August, Bolivia’s Supreme Court issued a finding that Sánchez de Lozada didn’t need to be served by the U.S. to be made aware of the prosecution – noting among other things his appearance on CNN proclaiming his refusal to return to Bolivia for trial. So, in September, the Court issued a formal request for extradition. A week ago in Washington Bolivia’s ambassador told me that the Embassy is currently preparing the English translation and is meeting with the U.S. State Department to insist that the U.S. honor its international legal responsibilities and end its protection of the deposed president.

Few people, in either Bolivia or the U.S. believe that the Bush administration, or any subsequent to it, is likely to escort Mr. Sánchez de Lozada to the airport in Miami for boarding. The U.S. has a long history of providing safe haven to deposed leaders with human rights records far worse than the ex-Bolivian president’s, including the Shah of Iran and Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza. But that doesn’t relinquish the U.S. from its legal duties nor will it detract the move by the families to demand justice.

All of which makes a new civil case against Sánchez de Lozada all the more important.

The Civil Case

On September 24th the legal moves against Sánchez de Lozada took a new turn, one that may prove far more worrisome to the man in Chevy Chase and his former top aide. With the backing and pro bono firepower of the Center for Constitutional Rights and the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School, civil suits were filed on behalf of the families against both Sánchez de Lozada and his former top deputy, Carlos Sánchez Berzaín, who now lives in Florida. The case charges both men with extra-judicial killings in the Black October massacres.

The twin civil cases charge Sánchez de Lozada and Sánchez Berzaín with responsibility for ordering the use of deadly force by police and troops. This included the use of machine guns as well as government snipers against unarmed protesters and children. All ten plaintiffs in the cases are family members of those killed in the protests of October 2003. Eloy Rojas Mamani and Etelvina Ramos Mamani’s 8-year-old daughter was killed in her mother’s bedroom when a bullet came through the window. Teofilo Baltazar Cerro’s pregnant wife and unborn child were killed. Felicidad Rosa Huanca Quispe’s 69-year-old father was shot and killed along a roadside.

In the civil suit, the families are seeking both compensatory and punitive damages, potentially enough to bankrupt both men.

As foreign citizens in the United States, the charges against the two men are being brought under the Alien Tort Statute and the Torture Victim Protection Act. The Alien Tort Statute was implemented in 1789, originally intended to prosecute foreign pirates residing in the country. It has since been utilized in a number of cases, including a successful suit against former President Marcos of the Philippines won in 1995. Lasting nearly 10 years, this suit, which also brought charges of crimes against humanity, ended with $2 billion of damages being awarded to victims’ families.

Marcos, like Sánchez de Lozada, had been a staunch U.S. ally. In 1981, five years before he was also run from the country by his own people, then-Vice President George Bush praised Marcos’ “adherence to democratic principles and to democratic processes.” Mr. Bush’s son lavished similar support for the embattled Sánchez de Lozada in 2003.

“No Safe Haven”

In Bolivia and elsewhere, Mr. Sánchez de Lozada has many boosters, most of whom cite political reforms he carried out in his first term in office in the 1990s, rather than his bloody short-lived term that ended four years ago this month. Among most Bolivians however, his name has become synonymous with gross acts of corruption and the giveaway of all of the nation’s major industries to foreign corporations. More important, for more than sixty Bolivian families, Mr. Sánchez de Lozada’s name has become synonymous, along with that of Mr. Sánchez Berzaín, for the smug impunity that allowed them to order the killings of their families followed by happy and wealthy lives in Maryland and Miami under U.S. protection.

The civil case fills that gap in justice, creating the potential for both public shame and a massive financial hit against those the families believe are responsible for the killings of their loved ones. Both men can expect to devote a good deal or their time from this day forward to writing checks to expensive U.S. lawyers, to having to defend themselves publicly for the events they presided over and, potentially, to following in the footsteps of Mr. Marcos and seeing their personal fortunes evaporated. A case that seemed, just a month ago, to have fallen to the margins, is now a real threat.

Judith Chomsky, an attorney from the Center for Constitutional Rights declared, “Human rights violators such as the defendants can no longer assume that they will have a safe haven in the United States; instead, our courts will hold them accountable for violations of universally recognized human rights.”

“Sanchez de Lozada shou
ld pay for what happened in our country,” Juan Patricio Quispe told the Washington Post. Mamani’s brother was shot in the back by soldiers under the former President’s command on Oct. 12, 2003. “We want justice.”
This week, he and other families are a big step closer to actually seeing that justice come to pass.

This post was co-authored by Elliot Wiiliams and Lily Whitesell

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