Jury selection begins in US trial of ex-Bolivian president


Miami (AFP)

Jury selection began Monday in the civil trial of former Bolivian president Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada over his alleged role in the killing of more than 50 civilians during disturbances in 2003.

It is the first time a former head of state will face trial in the US for alleged human rights abuses, under a law that permits civil suits in US courts related to extrajudicial killings.

Federal Judge James Cohn said that it would last between four and five weeks.

The judge as well as lawyers from both the prosecution and defense quizzed potential jurors about their knowledge of the case Monday.

The defense team asked would-be jurors if they had participated in protests and whether they considered themselves activists, warning that the statements of the victims would be emotional.

Several potential jurors asked to be excused on the basis that it would be difficult to maintain impartiality in the face of harrowing testimonies.

The suit alleges that Sanchez de Lozada and his defense minister, Carlos Sanchez Berzain, planned the extra-judicial killings by Bolivian security forces.

"We look forward to this historic opportunity to have our day in court," Teofilo Baltazar Cero, whose pregnant wife was among those killed, had previously said.

Known as the "October massacre," the deaths came after La Paz was cut off by massive protests led by Evo Morales, now the country's president.

Armed government troops were deployed on October 11, 2003 to open a route through blockaded roads for diesel and gasoline shipments into the Bolivian capital. Witnesses say they opened fire on civilians.

The deaths and ensuing crisis forced Sanchez de Lozada's resignation on October 17, and he fled the country the same day for the United States.

The lawsuit alleges that he and Sanchez Berzain had planned for months to crush the political opposition through the use of deadly force.