Having grown up, lived, or worked abroad for several years in Ghana, Chile, and Cuba, among other locations, the three of us came to Harvard Law School excited about pursuing international law. We had ideas about what a career in this field might look like and were eager to get involved with clinics and student practice organizations. But prior to joining the International Human Rights Clinic and working on the Mamani case, we didn’t really understand what practicing intentional human rights law meant.
Since the fall of our 2L years, we have worked together on Mamani et al v. Sánchez de Lozada and Sánchez Berzaín, a federal lawsuit against the former president of Bolivia, Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, and the former Minister of Defense, Carlos Sánchez Berzaín, for their respective roles in planning and ordering security forces to use deadly military force against unarmed civilians to suppress popular protests against government policies. In 2003, security forces under their leadership slaughtered 58 citizens and injured more than 400, almost all from indigenous Aymara communities.
On April 3, 2018, following a month-long trial, the jury issued a historic verdict and found both men liable for extrajudicial killings under the Torture Victim Protection Act, awarding our plaintiffs—the parents, husbands, wives, and siblings of individuals who were killed—$10 million in damages. The judge subsequently overturned the jury’s verdict after a Rule 50 motion, and the case is currently on appeal in the Eleventh Circuit.
We have continued to work on the appeal well into our last semester as HLS students. And though our time on the case will at some point come to an end, we are certain the long- lasting effects of this experience will continue to shape our lives and careers.
Our time on Mamani contributed significantly to our lawyering skills and career paths. Between the three of us, we traveled to Bolivia to conduct interviews of witnesses that would testify at trial; helped lawyers from HLS and Akin Gump take and defend depositions of expert and lay witnesses prior to trial, in locations ranging from Washington D.C. to Ecuador; and spent, collectively, hundreds of hours in two weeks between the hotel “war room” and the federal courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, working on the first civil trial in U.S. courts against a living former head of state for human rights abuses committed abroad. We learned how to interview plaintiffs, conduct depositions, review evidence, and prepare nervous witnesses, who had traveled thousands of miles to an unfamiliar place, for a historic trial.
More importantly, however, Mamani shaped our identities as lawyers. With our clinical instructors – Susan Farbstein, Tyler Giannini and Thomas Becker – we were lucky to experience firsthand how to be an effective lawyer while retaining compassion, humility, and humanity. We observed Thomas treating plaintiffs and witnesses not just as clients, but as equals and friends. We watched how Tyler was able to bring peace of mind to a nervous plaintiff, who had witnessed the death of his father, and remind him that the truth was his own. We learned from Susan about the importance of caring for each other during tough times and working as a team, which became a true family.
Our time in the International Human Rights Clinic confirmed our passion for and commitment to international law. Next year we will be pursuing a Fulbright in Spain to research the creation of a Truth Commission to investigate Franco-era crimes; litigating cases of universal jurisdiction in Geneva, Switzerland; and continuing to pursue human rights litigation in U.S. courts. Through these new and challenging experiences, we will bring with us the frustrations, joys, and lessons we learned on Mamani wherever we go.
This post was first printed in the Office of Clinical and Pro Bono Programs Commencement Newsletter. It was reprinted on the OCP blog on May 29, 2019.