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In Fort Lauderdale, Ex-Bolivian President Loses Landmark Human Rights Trial

Thomas Becker
Center for Constitutional Rights
Etelvina Ramos Mamani, far left, and her husband, Eloy Rojas Mamani, and their children are one of the Bolivian families who sued the country's former president.

Fifteen years ago, violent clashes between Bolivian security forces and protesters over control of natural gas resulted in many civilian deaths. On Tuesday a jury in Fort Lauderdale found Bolivia’s president at that time responsible for the killings.

More than 60 Bolivian civilians were killed in 2003 when security forces opened fire on demonstrators during the so-called Gas War. Many of them were Aymara Indians.

Four years later, relatives of eight of those victims filed a federal civil suit in the U.S. against former Bolivian President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada and former Defense Minister Jose Sanchez Berzain. Both now reside in the U.S.

The suit accused them of ordering extrajudicial killings and sought $10 million in damages. It was filed under a 1991 U.S. human rights law called the Torture Victim Protection Act.  On Tuesday, after a three-week trial, a federal jury in Fort Lauderdale ruled against the ex-Bolivian leaders.

“The jury’s sending a message that former heads of state will be held accountable in the United States if they reside in this country,” said Ilana Tabacinic of the Akerman law firm in Miami, one of the plaintiffs' attorneys.

This is believed to be the first time a former Latin American head of state has faced such a trial in the U.S. Tabacinic says the landmark verdict is also a warning to current heads of state in Latin America, where security forces  are accused of unlawfully killing protesters.

Lawyers for Sanchez de Lozada and Sanchez Berzain have asked the judge to overturn the verdict, which they may also appeal.

Tim Padgett is the Americas Editor for WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida. Contact Tim at tpadgett@wlrnnews.org
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