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Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic filed two lawsuits last week charging Bolivia’s former president and defense minister with ordering the killings of 67 civilians four years ago.
The suits, filed with other human rights lawyers, are among the most high-profile cases in the 24-year history of the Law School’s Human Rights Program, the clinic’s parent organization.
The 10 plaintiffs—all Bolivian natives—are seeking compensatory damages against Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada y Sánchez Bustamante, the ex-president of Bolivia, and Jose Carlos Sánchez Berzaín, the former minister of defense.
According to the lawsuits, Sánchez de Lozada and Sánchez Berzaín told security forces to use deadly force against civilians protesting government policies in September and October 2003, killing 67 and injuring more than 400.
The plaintiffs include the mother of an eight-year-old girl who was killed when a bullet was shot through her window, and a man whose pregnant wife was murdered in their home, according to Tyler Giannini, the clinical director of the Human Rights Program.
“Like the victims, I’m less concerned about the money,” said Thomas B. Becker, a third-year Harvard Law student who brought the case to the clinic’s attention. “I’d like to see justice.”
In 2003, both Sánchez de Lozada and Sánchez Berzaín fled Bolivia for the United States. Sánchez de Lozada now lives in Chevy Chase, Md., and Sánchez Berzaín lives in Miami. Because the men live in different states, the two lawsuits had to be filed separately.
But Becker said that the lawsuits did not call for the extradition of the two defendants from the United States to Bolivia, since only the U.S. and Bolivian governments—and not individual plaintiffs—can negotiate a possible extradition to Bolivia.
The U.S. government, he added, has remained mostly silent on this issue, and the clinic has not seen any public statements from the government.
“It’s absolutely ridiculous,” Becker said. “We’ve heard literally nothing.”
The clinic has been working on the lawsuits for the past year and has worked with several human rights lawyers in the process, Giannini said. Fifteen students have assisted with the project, and they have paid several visits to the victims’ families.
“The people of Bolivia are really looking for these officials to be held to account, and this is a way that our U.S. system can do its part,” Giannini said.
Many family members of the Bolivian victims have also expressed support for the lawsuits, even if the U.S. government does not extradite the former president and defense minister.
“We would prefer to see Sánchez de Lozada and Sánchez Berzaín sent back to Bolivia to stand trial, but if that does not happen, the U.S. courts are the best alternative,” plaintiff Juan Patricio Quispe Mamani said in a statement.
Sánchez de Lozada, Sánchez Berzaín, and their attorneys could not be reached for comment yesterday.
—Staff writer Kevin Zhou can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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