Judge Erroneously Set Aside Jury Verdict of Liability, Lawyers Say

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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.”

In September and October 2003, during a period of social protest against unpopular economic policies, the Bolivian military—acting under the control of former president Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada and former defense minister Sánchez Berzaín—unleashed lethal military force against unarmed civilians. Bolivian soldiers injured more than 500 people and killed more than 70. Following the massacre, both men fled to the United States, where they have lived since. Family members of eight individuals killed in the period that has come to be known as “Black October” waged a ten-year legal battle leading up to the trial and jury verdict.

At trial, witnesses testified that the president and defense minister committed to using overwhelming military force rather than pursuing peaceful alternatives like dialogue or negotiation, even when warned that deploying the military would result in tragedy. One witness, a former soldier in the Bolivian military, testified that he was ordered to shoot at “anything that moves” in a civilian community. Another witness testified that a military officer killed a soldier for refusing to follow orders to shoot at unarmed civilians. Witnesses also recounted that tanks rolled through in the streets and soldiers shot for hours on end, including into homes and at fleeing, unarmed civilians. Nonetheless, in setting aside the jury’s verdict, the trial judge concluded that there was insufficient evidence to hold the defendants liable for extrajudicial killings.

“The plaintiffs were gratified by the unanimous jury verdict. They are confident that the verdict reasonably reflects the evidence before the jury about the defendants’ responsibility for the killings of unarmed civilians,” said Thomas Becker, a clinical instructor with the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School.

In addition to Teófilo Baltazar Cerro, the plaintiffs who sued the former Bolivian president and defense minister include Eloy Rojas Mamani and Etelvina Ramos Mamani, whose eight-year-old daughter Marlene was killed in her mother’s bedroom when a single shot was fired through the window. The Mamanis came to Miami to witness today’s proceedings.  Other plaintiffs include Felicidad Rosa Huanca Quispe, whose father Raul was shot and killed along a roadside, and Gonzalo Mamani Aguilar, whose father Arturo was shot and killed while tending his crops.

“The plaintiffs have been fighting for 15 years to obtain justice for their loved ones. They followed the defendants to the United States because they refused to stand trial in Bolivia, and they will see this case through to the end,” said Judith Chomsky, a cooperating attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights. 

“It has been a privilege to work with the plaintiffs on this case, as they have shown courage, fortitude and dignity throughout their struggle for justice,” said Steven H. Schulman of Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld, LLP. 

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 firms of Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld, LLP, and Schonbrun, Seplow, Harris & Hoffman, LLP.

For more information, visit the Center for Constitutional Rights’ case page. This press release originally ran on the CCR’s website.

The International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School works to protect the human rights of clients and communities around the world. Through supervised practice, students learn the responsibilities and skills of human rights lawyering. Learn more at http://hlshrpstaging.wpengine.com/.

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The Center for Constitutional Rights works with communities under threat to fight for justice and liberation through litigation, advocacy, and strategic communications. Since 1966, the Center for Constitutional Rights has taken on oppressive systems of power, including structural racism, gender oppression, economic inequity, and governmental overreach. Learn more at ccrjustice.org.