US Civil Case Brought Against Bolivian Ex-President

On September 26, the Center for Constitutional Rights filed civil lawsuits against Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, former president of Bolivia, and his ex-minister Carlos Sánchez Berzaín on behalf of ten families of victims of the Black October massacre in 2003.

Source: Andean Information Network

[Also see Lawsuits Brought Against Bolivian Ex-President Sanchez de Lozada from the Center for Constitutional Rights]

On September 26, the Center for Constitutional Rights filed civil lawsuits against Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, former president of Bolivia, and his ex-minister Carlos Sánchez Berzaín on behalf of ten families of victims of the Black October massacre in 2003.(1)  The suits charge the two men with extrajudicial killings and crimes against humanity, and will seek monetary compensation for the affected families.  The case represents another opportunity for justice and to provide closure for all Bolivians.

This US civil suit is separate from the Bolivian government’s criminal trial of responsibilities.  The Bolivian attorney general’s office is preparing to submit a request to extradite Sánchez de Lozada and Carlos Sánchez Berzaín, as well as another ex-minister, Jorge Berindoague from the US, where they have lived since October 2003.  

Eleven reasons why the US civil court case makes sense:

1.     Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada and Carlos Sánchez Berzaín, have deftly crafted the misleading message that the criminal trial in Bolivia is a MAS political witch hunt, although the trial was actually approved by 2/3 of the Bolivian congress during the presidency of Sánchez de Lozada’s hand-picked vice president, Carlos Mesa.  Many members of Sanchez de Lozada’s own party and allies voted for the trial.

2.    As a result of this campaign they have effectively created the impression that the three men would not get a fair trial in Bolivia, a vision shared “off the record” by US government officials.  A civil trial in the US neatly sidesteps these accusations and is generally more appealing to US policymakers and public, which have more faith in the US justice system.  
3.    The accused men have hired skilled US lawyers to defend them and help spin their message relatively successfully in meetings with institutions and US officials.  For example Sánchez de Lozada hired the same lawyer former President Clinton hired to defend him in the Monica Lewinsky case.  Bolivian prosecutors and consular officials previously have had difficulties confronting this strategy as they have less experience with the US judiciary and international law.
4.    Although they have avoided making public statements about the trial of responsibilities in Bolivia, the Bush administration has stalled the extradition process.  They failed to deliver the letters rogatory, to officially notify the accused of the impending trial in Bolivia, for over two years.
5.    Loopholes in the US-Bolivia extradition treaty, ironically signed during the first Sánchez de Lozada administration, such as a clause forbidding political charges and the possibility for the Department of Justice (where the letters rogatory languished) to send back the request repeatedly for correction, could bog down or impede the process.  Whereas a civil trial has the potential to move ahead without political impediments as well as garner more support for the extradition request.

By broadening the focus to a US courtroom:

1.    The case takes advantage of the accuseds’ US residency, which has impeded progress in the Bolivian criminal case.  
2.    The Bush administration should have no ability to intervene in or influence the process in a US court as a result of separation of powers.
3.    The acceptance of the case under US standards of legal evidence would greatly legitimize the charges in the Bolivian court system and strengthen support for extradition.
4.    Skilled US human rights lawyers can more deftly address arguments from the defense and frame charges in a format comprehensible to a US jury, policymakers and public. For example, they can avoid semantic quicksand like the ‘genocide’ charge.
5.    A potential conviction would weaken arguments against extradition and put the Bush Administration under the microscope for failing to facilitate Bolivia’s efforts to bring the accused back to Bolivia to stand trial.
6.    The case presents the possibility for the payment of economic damages, which is in no way a replacement for criminal consequences, but could have a significant impact on the accused. While Sánchez de Lozada is a millionaire, the victims and their families are poor and have not yet received any compensation for their losses.  Some of the victims have permanent disabilities and require continued costly medical attention.

If a US court hears the case, it will be interesting to observe the concrete evidence presented and how a US jury will react to it.  Cases in both countries would benefit from consultation and mutual collaboration.

While it is important to Bolivian citizens that the extradition process and “responsibilities trial” move forward, the civil case in the US should bring enhanced publicity to the issue and has the potential to strengthen the call for extradition.  In any case, the plot has thickened and the prospects for justice in the Black October case now seem a bit brighter.

1For background information on the case please read:
“Lessons from Bolivia’s ‘Black October’ 2003”
“Continued Impunity Could Aggravate Pending Political Conflict”
"Human Rights Lawsuits Brought Against Former Bolivian President and Minister of Defence for Complicity in Attacks on Civilians" at

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