US judge rules ex-Bolivian president not responsible for rights abuses

Miami (AFP) –


A US judge on Wednesday ruled there was insufficient evidence to hold former Bolivian president Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada responsible for the extra-judicial killings of his compatriots during unrest in 2003, after a jury returned the opposite verdict.

Nine plaintiffs from the indigenous Aymara nation had argued in a US civil lawsuit that Sanchez de Lozada and his defense minister Jose Carlos Sanchez Berzain directed a violent military campaign that resulted in the deaths of eight of their relatives.

Overall, some 50 people were killed during the campaign.

But Federal Judge James Cohn, who presided over the court in Fort Lauterdale, Florida, ruled they lacked sufficient evidence, contradicting the verdict of a jury which held Sanchez de Lozada and Sanchez Berzain "responsible" for the deaths.

"Judgment is hereby entered in favor of Defendants Gonzalo Daniel Sanchez de Lozada Sanchez Bustamante and Jose Carlos Sanchez Berzain and against Plaintiffs," Cohn wrote, soon after he issued an order stating the evidence presented to the jury was "legally insufficient" for it to have given its verdict.

In April, following a three-week trial, Sanchez de Lozada and Sanchez Berzain were ordered to pay the plaintiffs $10 million in damages.

But the pair's lawyers submitted a motion asking the judge to dismiss the jury's decision on a technical argument over insufficient evidence -- which he accepted.

"The judge's decision in favor of the defense demonstrates that there was absolutely no evidence that indicates the existence of a plan or order to use lethal force against civilians," Sanchez de Lozada said in a letter.

Speaking to AFP, plaintiffs' attorney Judith Chomsky said they would appeal, adding the judge's ruling in contradiction with the jury was "unusual."

"We think that in reaching that decision, (the judge) ignored parts of the record on which the jury could rely," she said.

"We are disappointed, but we feel strongly that our case has merit and the jury made the right decision."

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.

Sanchez de Lozada and Sanchez Berzain went on trial in the US under a law that permits civil suits in US courts for extrajudicial killings.