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November 13, 2018
Posted by Thomas Becker
On October 12th, students from the International Human Rights Clinic arrived at the Villa Ingenio Cemetery on the outskirts of El Alto, Bolivia to celebrate the lives of those killed in Bolivia’s “Black October.” Despite the somberness of the drizzly afternoon, the cemetery was adorned with the bright colors of the family members’ aguayos (blankets) and polleras (traditional billowy skirts worn by Bolivia’s Aymara women). Today was a special occasion.
Téofilo Baltazar was one of the family members present at the cemetery. Fifteen years ago to the day, Bolivian soldiers shot and killed his pregnant wife Teodosia while she was praying inside her sister’s home. As Téofilo placed flowers on his wife’s tomb, he stated, “Hasta el último momento lucharé por la justicia.” (“Until the last moment, I will fight for justice.”)
Téofilo, like so many relatives of the roughly 500 casualties during Black October, is Aymara. Historically, the country’s indigenous people have been excluded from justice, but Téofilo and his friends were determined to change this.
In 2007, nine Aymara Bolivians launched a landmark lawsuit in U.S. federal court against Bolivia’s ex-President Gonzalo “Goni” Sánchez de Lozada and ex-Defense Minister Carlos Sánchez Berzaín, who fled to the United States after Black October and have lived here ever since. The case sought to hold both men responsible for the role they played planning and organizing the mass killings that took their family members.
After years of legal obstacles, the lawsuit went to trial in March of this year, marking the first time ever a former of head state was forced to directly face his accusers in a U.S. courtroom. The victims’ family members made history when, after a three-week trial and a week of deliberations, the ten-person jury unanimously held Goni and Sánchez Berzaín liable for the killings and awarded the plaintiffs $10 million. This was the first human rights verdict in the United States against a living head of state.
Unfortunately, in May, a judge overturned the historic jury decision. The judge upheld the defendants’ Rule 50 Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law, which argued that there was insufficient evidence to support the verdict. This decision forced the families back to court.
Last month, as Bolivians celebrated the lives of those killed in Black October, the plaintiffs submitted an appellate brief to the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit arguing that the district court applied the wrong legal standard for extrajudicial killings and the jury verdict should be reinstated. Additionally, current and former U.N. Special Rapporteurs on Extrajudicial, Summary, or Arbitrary Executions, retired U.S. military commanders, and law of war scholars submitted amicus briefs on behalf of the plaintiffs. Early next year, the Defendants will file their opposition brief and Plaintiffs will file their reply; oral argument is expected in spring 2019.
Though the struggle has been long, the families remain steadfast in their fight for justice. It is the memories of their loves ones that keep them going. At the cemetery, Téofilo shared with the Clinic’s students the importance of their victory and its significance for survivors throughout the world. “The jury is the voice of the American people, and the people have spoken. No court can change that. No court can change the message it sends to the world,” he told the students, adding: “But the struggle continues.”
The Clinic and co-counsel from Center for Constitutional Rights, Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld, LLP, and Schonbrun, De Simone, Seplow, Harris & Hoffman, LLP have represented the plaintiffs from the outset in the case. Clinical students Luna Borges Pereira Santos LLM ’19 and Kevin Patumwat JD ’19 traveled with clinical instructor Thomas Becker JD ’08 to Bolivia in October to commemorate 15 years since Black October.
June 17, 2016
Human Rights Case Against Former Bolivian President for Role in 2003 Massacre Cleared to Move Forward
Court of Appeals Rejects Defendants’ Attempt to Have Case Dismissed
Miami, FL –More than 12 years after government-planned massacres in Bolivia killed 58 unarmed civilians, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals yesterday rejected an effort to scuttle a lawsuit against the former President of Bolivia and his Minister of Defense, both of whom are currently living in the United States. Instead, the appellate court sent the case back to the district court with a mandate to proceed to discovery.
In Mamani v. Sánchez de Lozada and Sánchez Berzain, the families of eight Bolivians killed in the massacres filed suit against the former Bolivian president, Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, and his former Bolivian defense minister, José Carlos Sánchez Berzaín, charging they ordered extrajudicial killings. The lawsuit alleges that, months in advance of the violence, the two defendants devised a plan to kill thousands of civilians, and that they intentionally used deadly force against political protests in an effort to quash political opposition. In addition to the deaths, more than 400 civilians were injured when security forces fired on unarmed civilians.
In today’s unanimous decision, the appeals court held that a federal statute, the Torture Victim Protection Act (TVPA), permits plaintiffs to sue in U.S. court for extrajudicial killing after they have exhausted the remedies available in their home country. Continue Reading…
March 10, 2015
Posted by Tyler Giannini and Susan Farbstein
After 11 long years of litigation, plaintiffs from Somalia learned yesterday that their $21 million judgment for damages for torture and war crimes would stand. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to take the appeal of the defendant, General Mohamed Ali Samantar, a former Somali Prime Minister and Minister of Defense who was implicated in the abuses. Samantar, who now lives in Virginia, can make no additional appeals.
Beyond the victory for the plaintiffs, counsel from the Center for Justice & Accountability noted this ruling is critically important because it preserves a Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals decision that found egregious rights violations cannot be considered “official acts” shielded by sovereign immunity.
The ruling comes amidst ongoing debate about how the United States should treat high-ranking former foreign government officials who are accused of human rights abuses and are now living in the United States. The International Human Rights Clinic and its partners have been involved since 2007 in one such case, Mamani et al. v. Sánchez de Lozada and Sánchez Berzaín, which brings Alien Tort Statute claims against the former President and the former Defense Minister of Bolivia for their role in extrajudicial killings in 2003. Last Friday, the Mamani plaintiffs filed a brief with the Eleventh Circuit opposing the defendants’ appeal, which is considering the issues of exhaustion of remedies and command responsibility.
Like Samantar, the defendants in Mamani came to the United States after leaving power, and have remained in the country ever since.
July 2, 2014
Fourth Circuit’s Post-Kiobel Ruling Revives ATS Claims Against U.S. Corporation for Violations Committed Abroad
Posted by Tyler Giannini and Susan Farbstein
On Monday, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the presumption against extraterritoriality in Alien Tort Statute (ATS) cases, established by the April 2013 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum, Co., does not bar claims against a U.S. contractor for torture and mistreatment of foreign nationals in Iraq.
The Al Shimari v. CACI ruling is a major decision in the ongoing battle over the meaning and interpretation of Kiobel. Kiobel held that there is a presumption against extraterritoriality in ATS cases unless the “claims touch and concern the territory of the United States with sufficient force,” in which case the presumption can be displaced. In Kiobel, the Supreme Court found the “mere corporate presence” of the defendant in the United States did not overcome the presumption.
The Fourth Circuit compared the factual circumstances in Kiobel with those in Al Shimari, and concluded that the corporate defendant had a much more significant connection to the United States than mere presence. In so ruling, it became the first appellate court to hold that the plaintiffs’ claims sufficiently “touch and concern” U.S. territory to displace the presumption.
In the wake of the Kiobel decision, lower courts across the country have wrestled with how to interpret the new “touch and concern” standard given the limited guidance provided by the Supreme Court. Some courts have avoided the complexities of the Kiobel presumption altogether. However, the Fourth Circuit embraced the challenge:
Although the “touch and concern” language in Kiobel may be explained in greater detail in future Supreme Court decisions, we conclude that this language provides current guidance to federal courts when ATS claims involve substantial ties to United States territory. We have such a case before us now, and we cannot decline to consider the Supreme Court’s guidance simply because it does not state a precise formula for our analysis. Continue Reading…
June 24, 2013
New Allegations of Government Planning in 2003 Bolivian Massacre
Months before violence, defendants calculated it would take thousands of deaths to stop protests
June 24, 2013, Miami, FL — As the tenth anniversary of government-planned massacres in Bolivia approaches, family members of those killed filed an amended complaint (English or Spanish) in Florida today with extensive new allegations that the Defendants, former President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada and former Defense Minister Carlos Sánchez Berzaín, had devised a plan to kill thousands of civilians months in advance of the violence. The complaint seeks damages against the Defendants for their involvement in extrajudicial killings and crimes against humanity.
Since the case was originally filed in U.S. courts in 2007, seven former Bolivian officials, including high-ranking military leaders and members of the Cabinet, have been convicted for their participation in the violence of 2003. Sánchez de Lozada and Sánchez Berzaín, however, have found a safe harbor from justice in the United States for nearly a decade.
The new complaint alleges that the Defendants calculated it would take thousands of civilian deaths to stop anticipated protests over a controversial economic policy. They refused to consider dialogue, traditional police practices, or other less violent alternatives to massive lethal force against the protestors. The Defendants specifically relied on military forces, including special forces, to target innocent civilians as part of their campaign of oppression, plaintiffs say. New details also show how the Defendants were intimately involved in carrying out the planned violence, including participating in the operations against the civilian population.
“The United States should not be a safe haven for perpetrators of violent attacks on unarmed civilians,” said Beth Stephens of the Center for Constitutional Rights, who represents the Plaintiffs. “That’s all the more true when the facts show that the Defendants had a direct involvement in the attacks.”
May 16, 2011
Appeals Court to Hear Arguments in Case Charging Former Bolivian President for Role in 2003 Massacre
May 16, 2011, Miami, FL —The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals will hear oral argument tomorrow in Miami, Florida in Mamani v. Sánchez de Lozada and Sánchez Berzain. The case brings claims under the Alien Tort Statute (ATS) on behalf of ten Bolivian plaintiffs against the former Bolivian president, Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, and Bolivian defense minister, José Carlos Sánchez Berzaín, for their roles in a 2003 massacre that included targeted killings of unarmed civilians. Both defendants now live in the United States.
“The United States should not be a safe haven for individuals who commit serious human rights violations,” said Judith Brown Chomsky of the Center for Constitutional Rights, who will argue the appeal on behalf of the plaintiffs. “The Alien Tort Statute is an important tool for fighting impunity, and allows our clients to seek justice for the deaths of their loved ones.”
The oral argument will be heard tomorrow morning, May 17, 2011 at 9:30 a.m. at the King Federal Justice Building, 99 Northeast Fourth Street, Miami, FL.
The district court previously ruled in the plaintiffs’ favor on the motion to dismiss, allowing claims for extrajudicial killing and crimes against humanity to proceed against both defendants. The defendants are contesting this ruling on appeal.
The oral argument will address three legal questions: (1) whether the defendants are entitled to immunity, despite an explicit waiver of immunity from the Bolivian government, which the U.S. government accepted; (2) whether the case presents a non-justiciable political question; and (3) whether the complaint, alleging intentional killings of peaceful civilians, states cognizable claims for extrajudicial killing and crimes against humanity under the Alien Tort Statute.
April 4, 2011
Posted by Susan Farbstein
On May 17, the Eleventh Circuit will hear arguments in Mamani v. Sanchez de Lozada and Sanchez Berzain. The International Human Rights Clinic represents 10 Bolivian plaintiffs in this case against the former Bolivian president and defense minister for their roles in a 2003 massacre that included targeted killings of unarmed civilians. Back in November 2009, the district court ruled in the plaintiffs’ favor on the motion to dismiss, allowing claims for extrajudicial killing and crimes against humanity to proceed against both defendants.
Three legal issues are presented by the appeal: (1) whether the defendants are entitled to immunity, despite an explicit waiver of immunity from the Bolivian government, which the U.S. government accepted, (2) whether the case presents a non-justiciable political question, and (3) whether the complaint, alleging intentional killings of peaceful civilians, states cognizable claims for extrajudicial killing and crimes against humanity under the Alien Tort Statute.
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