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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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