- Page 1 of 2
April 6, 2021
April 6, 2021, Miami — Yesterday, a federal judge rejected an attempt by Bolivia’s former president, Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, and former defense minister, José Carlos Sánchez Berzaín, to vacate a $10 million damages award against them for the massacre of unarmed Indigenous people in 2003. A jury found the former officials liable under the Torture Victim Protection Act (TVPA) in April 2018, after a month-long trial that included six days of jury deliberations. The trial marked the first time in US history that a former head of state sat before his accusers in a US 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 August, the US Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit vacated the district court’s judgment and remanded the case to the district court for further proceedings. The defendants filed a second motion to vacate the jury verdict and damages award. Yesterday, on April 5, 2021, the trial court rejected that request.
“This news brings me so much happiness,” said Hernan Apaza , whose sister Roxana was killed by Bolivian soldiers in 2003. “We held on to hope for so many years despite so many obstacles for justice. Finally, those who committed these egregious crimes will be held accountable. “
In September and October 2003, acting under the authority of Sánchez de Lozada and Sánchez Berzaín, the Bolivian military killed 58 of its own citizens and injured more than 400, almost all of them from indigenous communities, during a period of civil unrest known as the “Gas War.” Among those killed were an eight-year-old girl, a pregnant woman (whose fetus also died), and elderly people. After the massacre, Sánchez de Lozada and Sánchez Berzaín fled to the United States, where they have lived since. Former military commanders and government officials who acted under the authority of the two men were convicted in Bolivia in 2011 for their roles in the killings. Sánchez de Lozada and Sánchez Berzaín were indicted in the same case but could not be tried in absentia under Bolivian law.
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. ” The appellate court vacated the lower court’s judgment and remanded the case to the district court to decide whether the jury verdict should be reinstated under the proper standard.
Yesterday, the district court ruled in favor of family members of those killed in the massacre, reinstating the $ 10 million jury verdict. The court held that the plaintiffs had presented sufficient evidence that the deaths constituted “extrajudicial killings” under international law and that the defendants were responsible for those killings under the doctrine of command responsibility. The appellate court had also ordered a new trial on plaintiffs’ related wrongful death claims, because the district court had abused its discretion in admitting certain evidence that was favorable to the defendants. The trial on those wrongful death claims is pending.Continue Reading…
August 19, 2020
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.Continue Reading…
August 3, 2020
(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.”Continue Reading…
May 19, 2020
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.”
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: [email protected]
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.”Continue Reading…
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. The court rejected the defendants’ arguments that it should dismiss the case because the plaintiffs received some compensation and humanitarian assistance in Bolivia. The decision sets an important legal precedent because no federal appellate court had previously considered the defendants’ argument on exhaustion of remedies abroad.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.”
The government’s violent response to expressions of popular discontent left dozens dead and hundreds injured in September and October 2003. Among the Plaintiffs is Etelvina Ramos Mamani, who watched her eight-year old daughter Marlene die in her arms, after Marlene was targeted by a military sharpshooter as the child stood at a window in their home. Sánchez de Lozada and Sánchez Berzaín had given orders to treat Marlene’s town and the civilians in it as a military target.Continue Reading…
- Page 1 of 2