Sunday, November 15, 2009

U.S. Court Allows Human Rights Suit Against former Bolivian President and Defense Minister to Proceed

Washington, D.C. 15 November (
The U.S. District Court in the Southern District of Florida ruled November 9 that the claims for crimes against humanity and extrajudicial killings could move forward in two related U.S. cases against former Bolivian president and former Bolivian defense minister.
The court allowed the case to proceed under the Alien Tort Statute, a U.S. federal legislation.
Judge Adalberto Jordan ruled that Bolivian plaintiffs have viable claims against former president Sánchez de Lozada and former defense minister Sánchez Berzaín. Each of these plaintiffs has brought claims on behalf of a deceased relative who was targeted by forces under the defendants’ command.

“The decision is a great victory for the plaintiffs, whose family members were shot—targeted by Bolivian security forces commanded by the defendants,” said Judith Brown Chomsky, a cooperating attorney for the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR). “This judgment reaffirms that U.S. courts can hear actions brought against those who abuse human rights.”
The complaints allege that in September and October 2003, Sánchez de Lozada and Sánchez Berzaín ordered Bolivian security forces to use deadly force, including high-powered rifles and machine guns, to suppress popular protests against government policies by targeting unarmed civilians in the indigenous Aymara community.

“This decision is a reminder that foreign heads of state cannot act with impunity,” said James Cavallaro, the Executive Director of the Human Rights Program at Harvard Law School and a Clinical Professor of Law. “It’s a powerful example of how international law is making it harder for those who violate human rights to escape accountability simply by fleeing to another country.”

On October 17, 2003, both Sánchez de Lozada and Sánchez Berzaín fled to the United States. The complaints were filed in September 2007.

There was no explanation if both of them have legal permanent status to reside in the United States or if a U.S. court could exercise jurisdiction over anyone who has alleged to have committed atrocities and human rights violations in their home countries while being on American soil.

The Florida court’s action seems to give a judicial explanation under the Alien Tort Statute that they could be prosecuted for such alleged crimes even if they do not have legal resident status.
The U.S. government agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security, under many federal laws, has direct jurisdiction over naturalized citizens or Green Card Holders for their alleged atrocities and human rights violations committed in their home countries during internal disturbances.

“Six years after directing security forces to target Bolivian civilians, Sánchez de Lozada and Sánchez Berzaín move one step closer to having to answer for their actions in a court of law,” said Jeremy Bollinger, an attorney with Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld.
The cases, Mamani, et al. v. Sánchez Berzaín, and Mamani, et al. v. Sánchez de Lozada, seek compensatory and punitive damages under the Alien Tort Statute (ATS).

If U.S. authorities intend targeting to prosecute in the judicial system of any alien who in their understanding has committed atrocities and human rights violations in their home countries this Florida court order to proceed with the Bolivian president and defense minister clearly indicates that such an action can only be avoided by keeping away from the American soil.