Pirate Law to Defend Human Rights

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Following a bloody revolt four years ago in which scores of civilians were killed and hundreds more injured, the Bolivian President resigned and, with his defense minister, fled to the United States. They lived in relative obscurity: the President in the tony Washington suburb of Chevy Chase; the defense minister first in Key Biscayne, a Miami suburb, and then to nearby Pinecrest.

But that comfortable obscurity is now at an end. Last week federal lawsuits against both men were unsealed, revealing charges of crimes against humanity — based on a 1789 law originally used against pirates.

The lawsuits — one in Maryland, the other in Florida — were filed last month on behalf of the family members of 10 victims of the carnage in Bolivia four years ago. They seek civil damages against former president Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, 77, and former defense minister Carlos Sanchez Berzain, 48. The surviving family members maintain the two men permitted Bolivian security forces to use deadly force against unarmed men women and children, leaving 67 dead and more than 400 injured. The defense maintains the facts are being skewed for political purposes and that both men were merely doing their jobs under difficult circumstances.

Gregory B. Craig, perhaps best known for helping Elian Gonzalez reunite with his father in 2000, told TIME he represents the former President and may take on the former defense minister as well. The plaintiffs have a phalanx of heavy-hitting attorneys, including the Human Rights Program at Harvard Law School and the Center for Constitutional Rights. "This is a pretty important case," says James Cavallaro, executive director of the Harvard Law School program. "There are not many other cases in which former Presidents are hailed before the court." In 1986, the exiled dictator of the Philippines Ferdinand Marcos was sued in federal court in Hawaii under the same law; his estate was eventually ordered to pay $2 billion to the 10,000 who filed the class action suit.

While the claims against Marcos spanned decades, those against the two Bolivians center on September and October 2003, after the President sparked a riot with his announcement of plans to build a $5 billion pipeline to a Chilean port for the export of natural gas to the United States and Mexico. Old territorial animosities against Chile combined with an underlying anger among Bolivia's indigenous peoples that they were being left out of lucrative oil and gas schemes. In the resulting protests — led in part by current Bolivian President Evo Morales, who was then a labor leader — children, pregnant women and old men were killed. The lawsuit cites specific incidents, including one involving an alleged government sniper, in the case against Sanchez de Lozada and Sanchez Berzain.

The lawsuits against both Bolivians (and against Marcos) use a centuries-old law, the Alien Tort Claims Act, adopted in 1789 to make pirates pay compensation for their pillaging. Nearly 200 years later, in 1979, human rights advocates began using the act to protect those killed or tortured anywhere in the world. For many victims it is the only justice they will attain because their home countries either won't or can't bring criminal charges against the perpetrators. "The torturer has become, like the pirate and slave trader before him, the enemy of all mankind," Harvard's Cavallaro says. The suit seeks unspecified damages for the survivors of the victims. But Cavallaro says that if it simply gives the families a chance to confront the two men in court, it will have served a good purpose.

"The State Department has said it's without merit and politically motivated," says defense attorney Craig, adding that the former President acted properly when he issued a decree declaring a national emergency and ordered the troops to escort tanker trucks for fuel distribution. "There's nothing improper about that," Craig says. "And there's no allegation that the President himself ordered anyone to kill anyone. So, it does seem to be quite clearly, even by the terms of the complaint itself, something that falls within the four corners of his duties as President."

Sanchez Berain released a statement welcoming the civil trial as a chance for him to clear his name. He repeated Craig's arguments and said that it was the machinations of Evo Morales that brought about the tragedies, indeed, that it was his rights and Sanchez de Lozada's that were being trampled. "The loss of human lives and the injuries were sought to benefit the conspirators who ended up getting the power and who now are in power."