Akin Gump Pro Bono Effort Yields Courtroom Win for Bolivian Human Rights Plaintiffs

(Washington, D.C.) – Today, U.S. District Judge James Cohn issued orders allowing the human rights claims of eight Bolivian residents to proceed against former Bolivian President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada and former Defense Minister Jose Carlos Sánchez Berzaín (“Defendants”), both of whom have lived in the United States for more than a decade.  Akin Gump, working pro bono in coalition with human rights lawyers, represented the Bolivian plaintiffs (“Plaintiffs”) who have been seeking to hold the Defendants liable for their roles in the 2003 military killings that claimed the lives of eight of their relatives: fathers, wives, husbands, sisters and daughters, as well as an unborn child. 

Judge Cohn found that Plaintiffs had sufficiently alleged facts that “plausibly suggest that these killings were deliberate” and further found that the Plaintiffs’ complaint adequately alleged that Defendants were responsible for the killings under the doctrine of command responsibility. 

Specifically, Judge Cohn found that Plaintiffs had sufficiently alleged that:

  • even before taking office, Defendants had planned to use lethal force to quell political disturbances
  • Plaintiffs’ relatives were killed as a result of that plan
  • Defendants had failed to prevent killings by the military under their command.

Rejecting Defendants’ motion to dismiss in part, Judge Cohn held that the Plaintiffs could assert claims under the Torture Victim Protection Act (TVPA) because “it does not appear that Bolivia will have the opportunity to specifically redress Defendants’ alleged human rights violations within its own judicial system anytime soon, if at all.”   In response to Defendants’ arguments that humanitarian payments made to Plaintiffs by the Bolivian government precluded claims against them, the court further held that “it would be absurd to conclude that Defendants could avoid liability for their alleged wrongs merely because the Bolivian government saw fit to render some humanitarian assistance to Plaintiffs.”

The court granted Defendants’ motion to dismiss claims asserted under the Alien Tort Statute, finding that the claims alleged in the complaint were not sufficiently connected to the United States, as they occurred entirely in Bolivia.  Plaintiffs’ case had previously been ordered dismissed by the United States Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit in 2011.  The amended complaint that was the subject of Judge Cohn’s order was filed in 2013.

Plaintiffs are represented by a team including Beth Stephens and Judith Chomsky, working with the Center for Constitutional Rights; Tyler Giannini, Susan Farbstein and Thomas Becker, affiliated with the Harvard Law School International Human Rights Clinic; David Rudovsky of Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing & Feinberg, LLP; and Steven Schulman, Michael Small, Jeremy Bollinger and Jonathan Slowik of Akin Gump.   

The cases are Mamani v. Sanchez de Lozada, No. 08-21063 (S.D. Fla.), and Mamani v. Sanchez Berzain, No. 07-22459 (S.D. Fla.).

Founded in 1945, Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP is a leading international law firm with more than 850 attorneys in offices throughout the United States, Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

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