Bolivia Massacre Victims Can Sue Former President

     (CN) — Bolivia’s ex-president must face claims that he ordered the killings of people who peacefully protested his administration’s policies, the 11th Circuit ruled.
     Eloy Mamani and others sued former Bolivian President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada and former Defense Minister Jose Carlos Sanchez Berzain in U.S. courts for the murder of their family members by government troops in 2003.
     Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada was elected to a second term as president of Bolivia in June 2002, with 22 percent of the vote. Lozada’s energy policies, which included a plan to export Bolivia’s natural gas to the United States and Mexico through Chile, attracted protests from the nation’s indigenous Aymara communities, who claimed the policies would further impoverish them.
     When protests broke out in 2003, Lozada and Bolivia’s minister of the presidency, Jose Carlos Sanchez Berzain, mobilized the army and ordered it to use deadly force against the protesters, according to federal complaints consolidated in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
     The plaintiffs, nine Bolivian citizens whose relatives died during the civil unrest known as the Gas War, claimed Lozada and Berzain, who later became the minister of defense, designed an elaborate plan to kill large numbers of civilians to suppress opposition to their policies.
     After Lozada’s administration used lethal force against protesters in early 2003, government officials and critics warned the president that his tactic was illegal and would claim innocent lives.
     Lozada and his supporters nevertheless continued to use military force to quash opposition, according to the lawsuits. Berzain said that “999 deaths were not enough, but that 1,000 would be sufficient,” to send the right message to protesters, the plaintiffs claimed.
     In the fall of 2003, when farmers, union members and students continued peaceful protests around the country, Lozada’s government once again refused to negotiate with them. The president declared Bolivia in a state of war, authorizing the army to shoot and kill civilians, who were falsely labeled as “enemy combatants” and “an organized armed rebellion” to justify the use of force, according to court filings.
     The plaintiffs claimed Lozada’s army randomly shot and killed close to 100 civilians, including their relatives, and injured at least 400 others.
     Marlene Nancy Rojas Ramos, an 8-year-old girl, was shot as she looked out the window in her home in Warisata, a small town a few hours from Bolivia’s capital La Paz, her parents claimed in the lawsuit.
     The parents said their daughter was far from the site of any protests, a claim similar to those of other plaintiffs, who said their relatives were shot and killed in their homes or while trying to run for shelter.
     Lozada and Berzain ordered soldiers deployed south of La Paz to “shoot at any head that you see” and stop protesters from entering the capital, according to the complaints.
     After the U.S. Embassy withdrew its support for Lozada and his administration in October 2003, Lozada and Berzain resigned and fled to the United States, where they now reside.
     Seeking to prosecute him, Bolivia demanded Lozada’s extradition from the United States, but the U.S. government refused the request on the grounds that a civilian leader cannot be tried for crimes committed by the military.
     Bolivian courts have meanwhile reportedly convicted several military officers and cabinet ministers on genocide charges in connection with the 2003 shootings.
     The plaintiff family members received 60,000 bolivianos each, approximately $8,700, as general compensation and for funeral expenses from the Bolivian government, but they seek additional damages in U.S. courts under the Torture Victim Protection Act.
     The 11th Circuit ruled Friday that the Bolivian compensation does not bar plaintiffs’ suit.
     “The TVPA bars courts from hearing claims brought under it ‘if the claimant has not exhausted adequate and available remedies in the place in which the conduct giving rise to the claim occurred,'” Chief Judge Ed Carnes said, writing for the three-judge panel.
     “The defendants contend that the fact the plaintiffs received some compensation through the local remedy bars them from any compensation under the TVPA. In other words, they would have us construe the TVPA so that when it comes to exhaustion, you’re barred if you do and barred if you don’t. We won’t,” the judge continued.

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