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Bolivia: Requests for extradition continue

NewsNotes, September-October 2008


On June 9, in reaction to the U.S. granting of political asylum to Bolivia’s former defense minister Carlos Sánchez Berzain, tens of thousands of people protested in front of the U.S. embassy in La Paz. The demonstration highlighted the increasing tension between the U.S. and Bolivia over the likely extradition request for former Bolivian president Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada (Goni), defense minister Sánchez Berzain, and hydrocarbons minister Jorge Berindoague. The official presentation of the extradition request should take place in the coming months, beginning a new phase of the case. Human rights and religious organizations will pressure the next U.S. administration to fulfill the extradition.

The extradition request is based on the events of “Black October,” the 2003 public demonstrations when 67 people were killed and hundreds were injured by the military under the direction of Sánchez de Lozada and his ministers. On October 17, 2003, the three men fled to the U.S. where they have remained ever since. The former president has been living a mere 10 minutes away from the White House in Chevy Chase, Maryland. Sánchez Berzaín lives in Key Biscayne, FL and Berindoague in Moraga, CA.

An official decree signed by Sánchez de Lozada and his cabinet, ordering the army to take control of the gas, oil, and pipeline facilities, states that “the State of Bolivia guarantees indemnification for any damage to property and persons which might occur as a result of the fulfillment of the objective of this present Supreme Decree.” Ironically, those who promised the indemnification are now trying to escape responsibility.

Although the defendants have portrayed the charges as motivated by the personal vengeance of Evo Morales against Sánchez de Lozada and Sánchez Berzain, in fact, two-thirds of Congress voted to begin the case against them in 2004, before Morales was elected to the presidency. That Congress was dominated by Sánchez de Lozada’s political party and allies and the vote took place during the administration of Carlos Mesa, Sánchez de Lozada’s former vice president. Other government ministers and military members are also responding to charges from the case.

In addition to the extradition process, family members of 10 people who were killed in 2003 are suing Sánchez de Lozada and Sánchez Berzain, using the Alien Tort Statute and Torture Victim Protection Act as well as Florida and Maryland state laws to try the case in U.S. civil courts. Sánchez de Lozada won the first round when the judge accepted his lawyers’ petition to move the venue from Maryland to Miami. Instead of responding to specific charges in the case, Sánchez de Lozada and Sánchez Berzain accuse Morales of political persecution and are trying to turn the case into an international cause by blaming Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez for being conspirators behind the protests in 2003. Defense lawyers may believe these types of arguments will carry more weight with a Miami-based judge or jury.

The protests in Bolivia in early June this year erupted when Sánchez Berzain’s lawyers revealed the fact that the former defense minister had been granted political asylum by the U.S. Homeland Security Department in April 2007. In the request for asylum, Sánchez Berzain claimed without evidence that Evo Morales had made public statements that “he would utilize all the authorities and resources he now commands as President to persecute and torture me if I were to return to Bolivia.” Sánchez Berzain also failed to reveal that he was responding to criminal charges which could have influenced the decision. Political asylum granted under false pretenses can be revoked and civil society organizations are beginning a campaign to pressure Homeland Security to revoke Sánchez Berzain’s asylum. In spite of his asylum, Sánchez Berzain could still be legally extradited and his status does not affect the U.S. civil trial.

Attorney Greg Craig, who serves as a foreign policy advisor for presidential candidate Barack Obama, represents Sánchez de Lozada and Sánchez Berzain. During a presentation on the future of U.S. policy toward Latin America on March 25 at the Elliot School of International Affairs at George Washington University, Craig was asked if, as an advisor to a possible future president, he would recommend that the U.S. honor its extradition treaty with Bolivia and extradite Sánchez de Lozada and his ministers. Craig mostly avoided the question but said, “[W]e would argue that if that extradition request is in fact filed, that it does not meet the fundamental requirement of dual criminality.” Dual criminality is a legal principle meaning that in order to extradite a person, the crime they are charged with must be a criminal offense in both countries. Apparently, Craig is arguing that ordering troops to carry out a massacre, causing extremely serious injury, privation of liberty, abuse and torture, attacks on freedom of the press, and making claims and resolutions contrary to the law (the crimes for which Sánchez de Lozada and his ministers are accused) are not crimes in the United States. On August 3, in response to questions about a potential conflict of interest, Craig stated he would recuse himself of advising Obama on this matter.

The Bolivian embassy reports that the extradition request will be translated and presented to the State Department some time this year. Family members of the victims will visit the U.S. to speak to political officials as well as to the general public to draw interest to the case. With the tremendous political connections that Sánchez de Lozada has in both of the major U.S. political parties, extradition may be a long battle, but the civil case could result in a large settlement with the victims’ families. Much of the Bolivian populace will be following the case closely in hopes that justice will be served, indicating a new period in Bolivian history when even politically connected people will not be above the law.

Check out Global Exchange's campaign to extradite Goni.

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