Background to the legal proceedings against former Bolivian President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada and other former government officials to stand trial for responsibility in the 2003 "Black October" killings.
International Precedents in the Sánchez de Lozada Case
WOLA and AIN, November 2007
In the fall of 2003, Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, then president of Bolivia, ordered the deployment of soldiers to suppress large protests against the export of Bolivian gas. Over several days from mid-September through mid-October, the troops fired into crowds in the city of El Alto, near La Paz, and allegedly used snipers to shoot at civilian protesters. Sixty-seven people were killed, including several children, and hundreds of others were injured. Two days later, Sánchez de Lozada and two of his ministers fled to the United States, where they remain.
On September 26, 2007, with the help of human rights attorneys from Harvard University and the Center for Constitutional Rights, a group of 10 families of victims of the "Black October" killings filed a U.S. civil lawsuit against Sánchez de Lozada and former Defense Minister Carlos Sánchez Berzaín for their role in the deaths. According to the Center for Constitutional Rights, evidence indicates that they ordered Bolivian security forces to use deadly force to suppress the protests.
In addition, the Bolivian government is expected to present a formal extradition request to the U.S. State Department so that Sánchez de Lozada and two of his former ministers can stand trial in Bolivia. (The United States and Bolivia signed an extradition treaty on June 27, 1995 which entered into force on November 21, 1996). In addition to the former president and ministers, six retired military commanders also face charges. The accused have sought to portray the Bolivian government's charges against them as politically motivated. However, the Bolivian Congress authorized the courts to proceed with charges against the former president well before current president Evo Morales was elected. In Bolivia, trials for high-ranking government officials must be approved by a two-thirds vote in the Congress. In Sánchez de Lozada's case, congressional approval for a trial occurred during the presidency of Carlos Mesa, Sánchez de Lozada's vice president and successor, and at a time when the majority of members in Congress belonged to Sánchez de Lozada's party or allied parties.
The recent extradition of former Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori from Chile to Peru to be tried for crimes against humanity sets an important precedent for the extradition of a former head of state to his own country to face trial. Unlike prosecutions of other former heads of state, such as Charles Taylor of Liberia or Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia and Yugoslavia, who were extradited by executive order and sent to international courts, Fujimori was extradited via a bilateral extradition treaty by order of the Chilean judiciary to face charges in his home country.
There are other precedents for extradition of former heads of state to stand trial for crimes against humanity in their home countries. They include:
Augusto Pinochet: Britain's House of Lords ordered the extradition of the former Chilean dictator, arrested in London in 1998, to Spain where he was wanted on charges of torture and disappearances. Although British authorities later allowed Pinochet to return to Chile for health reasons and thus avoid trial in Spain, the British court system did rule in favor of extradition. At the time of his death last year, Pinochet faced prosecution in two major human rights cases in Chile.
Luis García Meza: Brazil extradited former Bolivian dictator García Meza to Bolivia in 1995 at the request of the Bolivian government. He was convicted in a trial in his home country and is currently serving a 30-year prison sentence for crimes against humanity.
A fair trial in Bolivia of the "Black October" killings would mark an important step forward for the region, as Latin American countries continue to come to terms with their past and to institutionalize practices that promote human rights and justice.