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.

Since the case was filed in U.S. courts in 2007, seven former Bolivian officials, including high-ranking military leaders and members of the Cabinet, have been convicted in Bolivia for their participation in the massacres. Sánchez de Lozada and Sánchez Berzaín, however, have lived in the United States since 2003, when they fled Bolivia in response to widespread protests against their brutal policies and the killings.

“The United States should not be a safe haven for human rights abusers,” said Beth Stephens, a cooperating attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights, who represents the plaintiffs. “That’s all the more true when the facts show that the defendants intentionally used deadly force against unarmed civilians in an attempt to block political protests.”

Among the plaintiffs is Etelvina Ramos Mamani, whose eight-year old daughter Marlene died in her arms after Marlene was targeted by a military sharpshooter as the child stood by a window inside 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.

The family members are represented by a team of lawyers from the Center for Constitutional Rights, Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic, and the law firm of Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld, LLP. Lawyers from the Center for Law, Justice and Society (Dejusticia) are cooperating attorneys.