Blog: accountability

October 7, 2020

Forcing the UN to do right by Haitian cholera victims

A woman wearing a gray blazer looks out into the distance under an arch in front of the Harvard Law library.
Beatrice Lindstrom is pictured at Harvard Law School at Harvard University. Photo Credit: Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer

Beatrice Lindstrom, Clinical Instructor in the International Human Rights Clinic, has spent almost a decade working with communities in Haiti affected by a 2010 cholera epidemic caused by a sewage leak from a U.N. peacekeeper base. Coming up on the 10 year anniversary of the epidemic, Lindstrom spoke with Liz Mineo of the Harvard Gazette about her pursuit for justice on behalf of cholera victims and the U.N.’s failure to properly provide remedy and reparations after 10,000 died from the disease.

As Lindstrom says in the interview, which you can read in full on the Gazette website:

“If you had told me in October of 2010 that I would still be doing this work 10 years later, I think I would have felt both exasperated and heartbroken that the U.N. still has not responded justly to victims of the epidemic. At the same time, this has been a very long struggle that has been led by victims and affected communities in Haiti. As long as they are pushing for justice for their families, it’s a privilege to be able to stand alongside them.”

Beatrice Lindstrom

Learn more from Lindstrom and other experts at the Human Rights Program webinar “10 Years On: Lessons from the Cholera Epidemic from Haiti” on Thursday, Oct. 8 at 2 p.m. ET.

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August 25, 2020

Human Rights Clinic team submits amicus brief in Chiquita Brands lawsuit

Posted by Dana Walters

Chiquita bananas on display in grocery store
Credit: cbarnesphotography/iStock

If everything had gone according to schedule, the International Human Rights Clinic (IHRC) would have filed an amicus curiae brief in December 2019 in a case against Chiquita Brands International, the world’s largest banana company. The suit, on behalf of families who suffered mass atrocities by paramilitary groups during the Colombian armed conflict, seeks accountability for the reign of terror Chiquita aided and abetted from 1997 to 2004.

However, after several delays and further challenges caused by the pandemic, the clinic and the Center for Justice and Accountability (CJA) finally filed the brief on behalf of human rights experts on June 5, 2020. The process included dozens of drafts and memos, multiple back-and-forths with amici, and hundreds of hours of time of a dozen alumni and students in multiple time zones. The amicus brief is one small part of a larger, evolving corporate accountability litigation landscape, one in which the clinic has been involved for decades. In a globalized economy where supply chains are diffused, attorneys and affected communities have sought to use U.S. courts to stop U.S. corporations and executives from assisting in violating human rights abroad.

“Chiquita and cases like it present a central question facing U.S. courts today—whether the United States is going to become a safe haven for U.S. corporations implicated in human rights violations outside the country,” said Tyler Giannini, co-director of Harvard Law School’s Human Rights Program (HRP) and the IHRC.

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August 19, 2020

Clinic Urges U.N. Experts to Review Bolivian Rights Violations


La Clínica insta a expertos de la ONU a que evalúen violaciones de derechos humanos en Bolivia (La versión en español está abajo).


(August 19, 2020) —United Nations (U.N.) Special Rapporteurs must urgently review the human rights situation in Bolivia, Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic said in a submission to the U.N. Special Procedure system today. Widespread rights violations have been documented in Bolivia since the disputed October 2019 election, and there are grave concerns that ongoing repression will prevent upcoming elections from being free and fair.

The submission documents events since Jeanine Áñez declared an interim government on November 12, 2019. It details the killing of civilians in Sacaba and Senkata in November of last year, failures to investigate and punish those responsible, as well as state forces’ and para-state groups’ efforts to suppress dissent. The urgent need for international scrutiny was brought home this week as protests grew in response to the government decision to postpone elections again until October. News sources have reported a growing crisis in Bolivia as protests have renewed and fears of another violent crackdown intensify. The Clinic urges the U.N. rights experts to work with the Bolivian government to uphold international obligations, restore the rights owed to its citizens, and hold the fair and free elections they have promised to the Bolivian people.

“Given what I witnessed in Sacaba last November where Indigenous civilians were shot and killed by state forces, the rhetoric of the current government in response to the resumption of mass protests is extremely worrying,” said Thomas Becker JD’08 on behalf of the International Human Rights Clinic. “The people of Bolivia have the right to protest, and the international community needs to act to do all it can to prevent a repeat of last year’s violent crackdown and those horrific killings.”

The submission is a request to the U.N. Special Procedure system, which is comprised of U.N.-appointed human rights experts who are charged with reporting and advising on human rights issues worldwide. The submission builds on a recently released report from the International Human Rights Clinic and the University Network for Human Rights, which identified the period since November 2019 as one of the deadliest and most repressive periods in the past several decades in Bolivia. Over a period of six months, a Clinic team interviewed over 200 victims, witnesses, journalists, and officials. It further analyzed medical reports, autopsies, photographs, and other official documents. The report, entitled “‘They Shot Us Like Animals’: Black November and Bolivia’s Interim Government,” details how the interim government has created a climate of oppression, rife with violence, fear, and misinformation. In addition, the submission to the U.N. states, “State forces have blocked attempts to investigate and prosecute the November attacks, leading to de facto impunity to date for those responsible.”

“The current atmosphere of impunity has created an environment that is dangerous to anyone who dissents,” said Celeste Kmiotek JD’20, a Harvard Law graduate who led the drafting of the submission. “It is critical that Bolivia address the human rights abuses ahead of the upcoming elections so that they are truly fair. The Special Rapporteurs should should engage with the interim government to put an end to these violations.”

Kmiotek coordinated research and writing from other clinical teams members, including Matthew Farrell JD’21, Jasmine Shin JD’21, Sabrina Singh JD’20, Mahmood Serewel LLM’20 with supervision from Becker and Tyler Giannini, Human Rights Program and International Human Rights Clinic Co-Director.

The submission comes on the heels of a recent victory against impunity for former heads of states’ crimes against Indigenous peoples in Bolivia. On August 3, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit vacated a trial court judgment that had been entered in favor of Bolivia’s former president, Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, and former defense minister, José Carlos Sánchez Berzaín, for the massacre of unarmed Indigenous people in 2003 in what is known as “Black October.” The Clinic has been litigating the case, Mamani et al. v. Sánchez de Lozada and Sánchez Berzaín, for over a decade.

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August 3, 2020

U.S. Appeals Court Rules Against Former Bolivian President and Defense Minister Over 2003 Massacre


August 3, 2020, Miami – Today, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit vacated a trial court judgment that had been entered in favor of Bolivia’s former president, Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, and former defense minister, José Carlos Sánchez Berzaín, for the massacre of unarmed Indigenous people in 2003. A jury found the former officials liable under the Torture Victims Protection Act (TVPA) and awarded plaintiffs $10 million in damages in April 2018, after a month-long trial that included six days of deliberations. The trial marked the first time in U.S. history that a former head of state sat before his accusers in a U.S. human rights trial. In an unusual move, a month later the trial court set aside the jury verdict and entered its own judgment holding the defendants not liable based on insufficient evidence. In November 2019, two of the plaintiffs, whose young daughter had been killed by soldiers in the massacre, traveled to Miami to have their appeal heard. Today, the Court of Appeals vacated the district court’s judgment and remanded the case to the district court for further proceedings. In addition, the Court of Appeals held that plaintiffs were entitled to a new trial on related wrongful-death claims because the district court had abused its discretion in admitting certain evidence that was favorable to the defendants.

“This is such wonderful news,” said Sonia Espejo, whose husband Lucio was killed in the 2003 Massacre. “We have fought for so long. We will continue fighting, but for today, I feel happy. I feel calm.” 

The appellate court held that plaintiffs provided sufficient evidence that “soldiers deliberately fired deadly shots with measured awareness that they would mortally wound civilians who posed no risk of danger. None of the decedents were armed, nor was there evidence that they posed a threat to the soldiers. Many were shot while they were inside a home or in a building. Others were shot while they were hiding or fleeing.”

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July 27, 2020

Summary executions and widespread repression under Bolivia’s interim government reports rights advocates from Harvard and University Network for Human Rights


Advocates call for a stop to state repression and violence, a turn to accountability, and a clear path to free and fair elections

Gregoria Siles mourns the death of her son Omar Calle hours after soldiers shot and killed him in Sacaba. She cries over a casket while others look on tearing up.
Gregoria Siles mourns the death of her son Omar Calle hours after soldiers shot and killed him in Sacaba. Photo Credit: Thomas Becker 2019.


(Cambridge, MA, July 27, 2020) –­­– Four days after the Interim Bolivian Government suspended elections again, Harvard Law School’s (HLS) International Human Rights Clinic and the University Network for Human Rights (UNHR) released a report on the gross human rights abuses carried out under Bolivia’s interim President, Jeanine Áñez. The report documents one of the deadliest and most repressive periods in the past several decades in Bolivia as well as the growing fear of indigenous peoples and government critics that their lives and safety are in danger. 

“We have identified very troubling patterns of human rights violations since the Interim Government took power. These abuses create a climate where the possibility of free and fair elections is seriously undermined,” said Thomas Becker, an international human rights attorney with UNHR and a 2018-2020 clinical instructor in HLS’s International Human Rights Clinic.

Áñez assumed power on November 12, 2019 with the mandate of calling new elections by January 2020. Under her administration, Bolivia has endured a surge of human rights violations. Shortly after Áñez took power, state forces carried out operations that killed at least 23 Bolivian civilians, all indigenous, and injured over 230. These casualties make November 2019 the second-deadliest month in terms of civilian deaths committed by state forces since Bolivia became a democracy nearly 40 years ago.

Since November, the interim government has continued to persecute people that it perceives to be outspoken opponents of the Áñez administration. The government has intimidated the press, shutting down critical news outlets and arresting “seditious” journalists. Áñez’s forces have arrested or detained hundreds of former politicians for vague crimes such as “sedition” and “terrorism.”

The HLS and UNHR report offers recommendations to the interim government to enforce its domestic and international obligations. First among these recommendations is that the interim government fulfill its commitment to hold free and fair presidential elections as quickly as possible.

“We are spiraling deeper into authoritarianism,” warned Felipa López Apaza, whose brother Juan was killed in Black November. “We need elections as soon as possible or they will keep coming after us.”

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June 30, 2020

UN releases embargoed expert letters drawing on Clinic complaint


Rights experts call on UN to provide remedy to victims of Haitian cholera epidemic


(June 30, 2020) — The United Nations (UN) published two previously embargoed letters from fourteen UN independent rights experts on Saturday, calling on the organization to deliver overdue remedies to victims of cholera in Haiti. Addressed to Secretary-General António Guterres and the Haitian government, the letters respond to a complaint submitted by the International Human Rights Clinic, the Haiti-based human rights law firm Bureau des Avocats Internationaux (BAI), and its U.S.-based partner organization, the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti (IJDH) in January.  

The experts’ letters adopts the Clinic’s arguments that the UN’s approach following its public apology in 2016 amount to violations of the right to effective remedy. The experts found “glaring limitations” in the UN’s approach, including that the UN has failed to pay any compensation and that its subsequent underfunded effort has amounted to little more than a spate of symbolic development projects. They stressed that “the continued denial of effective remedies to the victims is not only a violation of their human right to an effective remedy, but also a grave breach of public confidence in the Organization’s integrity and legitimacy.” The letters conclude that a “fundamental shift in approach is necessary if the Organization is to uphold the respect for human rights and rule of law.”  

Beatrice Lindstrom, Clinical Instructor in the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School, led a clinical student team in working on the January complaint. She was recently interviewed by Harvard Law Todaydiving into her nearly-decade long advocacy on behalf of Haitian cholera victims. The interview explores the UN’s failure to adequately respond to the epidemic and provide appropriate reparations to victims. 

As Lindstrom says in the Q&A, “In the absence of an independent mechanism to determine responsibility, the decision becomes a political one driven by the self-interests of powerful member states and officials within the UN bureaucracy. I think there have always been people within the U.N. who have wanted to see the organization do the right thing in Haiti, but without adequate leadership from the Secretary-General, the forces pushing for inaction have prevailed.” 

The rights experts released a public statement at the time the letters were sent, which generated significant attention in the media and prompted a preliminary response from the Secretary-General.

June 25, 2020

Seeking overdue reparations for U.N.-caused devastation in Haiti


In Q&A, Beatrice Lindstrom calls for international human rights organization to deliver remedies to cholera victims

Beatrice Lindstrom talks to reporters after a lawsuit against the UN was dismissed
Credit: Edgar Lafond/Haiti Liberté. Clinical Instructor Beatrice Lindstrom at a press conference following oral argument in Georges v. United Nations, a lawsuit to hold the UN accountable for the cholera outbreak. The case was dismissed the day after the UN announced that a New Approach would be forthcoming.

In 2010, United Nations (U.N.) peacekeepers caused a devastating cholera outbreak in Haiti. Nearly a decade later and with COVID-19 threatening an already fragile situation, affected communities are still waiting for access to remedy. Beatrice Lindstrom, clinical instructor and supervising attorney in Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic, has been working for nearly a decade on pathbreaking advocacy to secure accountability from the U.N. for the destruction it caused. Lindstrom was lead counsel in Georges v. United Nations, a class action lawsuit on behalf of those injured by cholera. Prior to joining Harvard Law School, Lindstrom was the legal director of the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti.

Harvard Law Today: How and why did the 2010 cholera outbreak begin in Haiti?

Beatrice Lindstrom: Cholera was introduced to Haiti when the U.N. deployed peacekeepers from Nepal—which was experiencing a cholera outbreak—without testing or treating them for the disease. The peacekeepers were stationed on a base in rural Haiti that had reckless waste disposal practices. Untreated waste from the base’s toilets was routinely dumped into unprotected open-air pits that overflowed into the surrounding community and into a nearby tributary. That tributary feeds into the Artibonite River, the primary water source for tens of thousands of Haitians. The resulting outbreak is the deadliest cholera epidemic in the world: At least 10,000 people have died and approximately one million people have been sickened since 2010. To put it in context, the number of cholera infections per capita in Haiti still exceeds the COVID-19 infection rate in any nation.

HLT: How has the United Nations responded?

Lindstrom: Despite scientific consensus that the U.N. base was the source of the outbreak, the U.N. denied responsibility for six years and refused victims access to any forum to hear claims for remedies. The U.N. enjoys broad immunity, but is required to settle claims by civilians out of court. In 2011, the Haitian human rights organization Bureau des Avocats Internationaux (BAI) and its U.S.-based partner Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti (IJDH), where I then worked, filed claims on behalf of 5,000 victims. The U.N. rejected the claims without offering any legal justification, and has refused to refer the claims to an independent claims commission as required under international agreements. The U.N.’s own Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights called the U.N.’s response “morally unconscionable, legally indefensible, and politically self-defeating.”

It took an extraordinary mobilization of cholera-affected communities and allies in Haiti and abroad to persuade the U.N. to shift course. In 2016, the Secretary-General finally issued a public apology and launched a $400 million “New approach to cholera in Haiti.” But over three years later, the U.N. has raised only 5% of the $400 million promised, and has not paid any compensation to victims. Despite initially pledging to center victims in decision-making, critical decisions about the direction and content of the New Approach have been made without victim input. These deficiencies stem from the U.N.’s continued denial of legal responsibility for the outbreak, which would trigger funding through assessed contributions from its member states and ensure that responsibility is shared collectively across the organization. Instead, remedies for cholera victims is treated as charity and left to compete with other humanitarian causes.

HLT: Why do you think the U.N. has been reluctant to accept responsibility?

Lindstrom: In the absence of an independent mechanism to determine responsibility, the decision becomes a political one driven by the self-interests of powerful member states and officials within the U.N. bureaucracy. I think there have always been people within the U.N. who have wanted to see the organization do the right thing in Haiti, but without adequate leadership from the Secretary-General, the forces pushing for inaction have prevailed. The U.N.’s Legal Counsel has reportedly waged “an extraordinary internal campaign” against anything that would resemble an acceptance of responsibility. Lawyers are often concerned about setting precedent, but here there is consensus among legal experts that the claim falls within the U.N.’s existing duty to compensate for “private law” claims, so the only precedent set would be one of compliance. If the concern is that it would in practice invite claims in other contexts, this implies that the U.N. anticipates many other situations where civilians will be harmed by U.N. negligence. Others resist accepting responsibility because of the financial implications. The $400 million that the U.N. is now seeking for cholera, however, is only a fraction of the $4 billion that it has spent on its stabilization mission in Haiti since the outbreak started. And as governments are now rightly investing trillions of dollars in financial support for households impacted by COVID-19, it is increasingly clear that more could be done for cholera victims if the political will was there.

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May 19, 2020

Carwil Bjork-James Explores Bolivia’s 2003 Gas War and 2019 Election Crisis in New Working Paper


A new paper, “Mass Protest and State Repression in Bolivian Political Culture: Putting the Gas War and the 2019 Crisis in Perspective,” by Carwil Bjork-James, Assistant Professor at Vanderbilt University, has just been released as part of the HRP Working Paper Series. The paper explores Bolivian political conflict since 1982 and the range of protest tactics and political actors’ acceptance of or willingness to repress mass protest. Bjork-James zeroes in on two episodes: the 2003 Gas Wars and the recent upheaval following the 2019 election. The bulk of the white paper presents and extends the results of a report he drafted as an expert witness for the plaintiffs in the Mamani et al v. Sánchez de Lozada and Sánchez Berzaín case before the United States Federal Court for the Southern District of Florida. Staff in the International Human Rights Clinic have been litigating Mamani for over a decade.

As Bjork-James describes in a blog post on his website:

“Overall, Bolivia has a political culture of frequent mass participation in disruptive protest, which is reflected in laws, legal precedents, traditions of tolerance, popular attitudes toward protest and repression, and the words and actions of politicians and other leaders. For nearly a century, many Bolivian government leaders have claimed their legitimacy as representatives of recent outbursts of mass protest, but this history has been interrupted many times by military and authoritarian rulers who cracked down on protest. During the shorter, but current period of electoral democracy (since 1982), politicians of various political stripes have contrasted their values and actions with those of the pre-1982 dictatorships, creating a certain space for protest and an incomplete but nonetheless real aversion to deadly repression of protest.

However, there are now two exceptional moments that burst the bounds on deadly repression: the 2003 Gas War and the 2019 political crisis that saw the overthrow of Evo Morales. The white paper examines each of them in detail. In 2003, President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada moved to criminalize longstanding forms of protest, and orchestrated a military response that directly killed at least 59 civilians. In 2019, three weeks of dueling protests over the October 20 election prompted Morales’ November 10 resignation under pressure from security forces. After Morales’ ouster both military commanders and interim president Jeanine Áñez presided over deadly repression.”

Read “Mass Protests” on our publications page and Bjork-James’s blog post on his website, “Carwil Without Borders.”

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February 6, 2020

Groups Ask Human Rights Experts to Intervene in UN Response to Haiti Cholera


Three years after admitting its responsibility for cholera, UN continues to violate victims’ rights


February 6, 2020 (New York, NY; Cambridge, MA; Port-au-Prince, Haiti) — Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic, Haiti-based human rights law firm Bureau des Avocats Internationaux (BAI), and its U.S.-based partner organization, the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti (IJDH), filed a formal complaint last week asking UN experts to investigate human rights violations linked to the UN’s response to introducing cholera to Haiti. The complaint is a request to the UN “Special Procedure” system, a group of UN-appointed human rights experts charged with reporting and advising on human rights issues worldwide.

In 2016, after years of denial, then UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon publicly apologized for the UN’s role in introducing cholera to Haiti and launched a “New Approach to Cholera in Haiti,” a $400 million plan to eliminate cholera and provide “material assistance” to those most affected by the disease. The epidemic has killed 9,789 people and sickened 819,000 since 2010, and Haiti remains vulnerable to cholera due to inadequate investments in water, sanitation and health systems.

 “Three years after admitting it was responsible for cholera, the UN continues to unconscionably violate victims’ right to reparations and deny its legal obligations,” said Mario Joseph, Managing Attorney of the BAI.  Since 2010, BAI and IJDH have worked to advance cholera victims’ struggle for justice, including by filing 5,000 claims with the UN and a class action lawsuit in U.S. federal court.

Earlier this week, Foreign Policy revealed that the UN’s lawyers waged “an extraordinary internal campaign” to keep the Organization from accepting full responsibility for cholera. In his parting email, the outgoing Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, Andrew Gilmour, slammed UN leadership for failing to honor cholera victims’ rights, calling it “the single greatest example of hypocrisy in our 75-year history.”

The complaint filed last week documents serious deficiencies in the UN’s response under Secretary-General António Guterres’ leadership that violate the right to effective remedy protected under human rights law. Major findings include:

  • The UN refused to fund the New Approach through its regular budget, instead relying on charitable donations that have raised only 5% of the $400 million promised. 
  • The UN made key decisions about the New Approach without victim input. Victim groups organizing for cholera justice were sidelined and labeled a “risk” by the UN Development Programme.
  • The UN is denying victims direct compensation for the devastating harms they suffered, in violation of both human rights law and its own legal framework.
  • The UN has done little to prevent similar health disasters in the future, with internal UN audits showing that the UN continues its unsafe sanitation management in peacekeeping missions around the world.

“We are appealing to UN Special Procedures to protect victims’ rights to remedies for the harms they suffered. This is as urgent for the countless families who lost loved ones and struggle to survive as it is for the UN’s own legitimacy,” said Beatrice Lindstrom, Clinical Instructor in the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School, who led a team of students in drafting the complaint.

UN Special Procedures previously took up the cholera issue in a joint allegation letter in 2014, raising concerns that the UN was denying cholera victims access to legal remedies. Efforts to persuade the UN to change course culminated in a highly critical 2016 report from the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, Philip Alston. This engagement amidst an extraordinary mobilization of cholera-affected communities and allies played a key role in prompting the UN to eventually admit its role in the outbreak.

“UN Special Procedures are the eyes and ears of the human rights system.  We are calling on these experts to again take action to protect the integrity of the UN human rights system by holding the UN to its commitments and the rights it claims to protect and promote world-wide,” said IJDH Legal Advocacy Director Sienna Merope-Synge.

A full copy of the 32-page complaint can be found here. Harvard Law School Clinical students Steven Jiang JD ’21, Gigi Kisela JD ’21, and Saranna Soroka JD ‘20 contributed to the drafting of the complaint.

Media Contacts:

Mario Joseph, Managing Attorney
Bureau des Avocats Internationaux
T: +509 3701 9879 | E: mario@ijdh.org
(Kreyol, French, English)

Beatrice Lindstrom, Clinical Instructor
International Human Rights Clinic, Harvard Law School
T: +1 617 495 1654 | E: blindstrom@law.harvard.edu
(English, Kreyol)

Sienna Merope-Synge, Legal Advocacy Director
Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti
T: +1 917 864 6901| E: sienna@ijdh.org
(English, French, Kreyol)

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November 19, 2019

Indigenous Bolivian Family Members Urge Appeals Court in Miami: Reinstate Judgment Against Former Bolivian President and Defense Minister for Civilian Massacre

Judge Erroneously Set Aside Jury Verdict of Liability, Lawyers Say

Contact: press@ccrjustice.org

November 19, 2019, Miami – Today, Indigenous Bolivian family members urged the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals to reinstate a judgement against Bolivia’s former president, Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, and former defense minister, Carlos Sánchez Berzaín, for the massacre of unarmed Indigenous civilians in 2003.

A U.S. jury found the two former officials liable under the Torture Victim Protection Act in April 2018 and awarded the victims’ families $10 million in damages. The unanimous verdict came after a month-long trial that included six days of deliberations. The judge later set aside the jury verdict and entered his own ruling holding the defendants not liable.

“I was proud, during the trial, to be able to hold these two men to account in their adopted country,” said Teófilo Baltazar Cerro, a plaintiff whose pregnant wife Teodosia was shot and killed while praying inside her sister’s home. “We have faith that the Court of Appeals will see what the Bolivian people and the American jury also saw: that Goni and Sánchez Berzaín are responsible for these killings, and that justice must be done.”

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