Akin Gump Teams with Legal Org’s to Rep Bolivian Plaintiffs in Historic Int’l Human Rights Case

(Washington, D.C.) – An Akin Gump team headed by litigation partner Joseph Sorkin is working with a group of legal organizations and other law firms to represent nine Bolivian plaintiffs against a former Bolivian president and a defense minister in a case that marks the first time in U.S. history that a former head of state will sit before his accusers in a civil human rights trial in a U.S. court.

A federal judge has ruled that former president of Bolivia Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada and his minister of defense José Carlos Sánchez Berzaín must face trial in the United States in a civil case alleging that the Bolivian military massacred more than 50 of its own citizens during a period of civil unrest in 2003. Last week, the judge rejected the defendants’ final effort to avoid trial, denying a motion filed by the former president and his former defense minister, both of whom live in the United States. The trial will begin in the federal court in Fort Lauderdale on March 5, 2018.

In Mamani v. Sánchez de Lozada and Sánchez Berzaín, as detailed in the court’s February 14 order, the families of eight Bolivians killed filed suit against Sánchez de Lozada and Sánchez Berzaín, alleging that they planned the extrajudicial killings. The lawsuit alleges that, months in advance of the violence, the two defendants devised a plan to kill thousands of civilians, and intentionally used deadly force against political protests in an effort to quash political opposition. In addition to the deaths, more than 400 unarmed civilians were shot and injured.

In 2016, a U.S. appeals court held that the plaintiffs could proceed with their claims under the Torture Victim Protection Act, which authorizes suits in U.S. federal court for extrajudicial killings. Sánchez de Lozada and Sánchez Berzaín then sought and were denied a review by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2017. After a review of the evidence gathered by both sides, District Court Judge James Cohn ruled on February 14 that the plaintiffs had presented sufficient evidence to proceed to trial.

Akin Gump has worked for over a decade on this matter to ensure the survivors and family members of those killed can find justice. Besides Mr. Sorkin, the Akin Gump team comprises pro bono partner Steven Schulman; IP partner Rubén Muñoz and counsel Jason Weil; litigation senior practice attorney Christine Doniak, counsel Jennifer Woodson and associates Saurabh Sharad, Zak Franklin, Erica Moran; and international trade counsel Maka Hutson.

In addition to Akin Gump, working on the plaintiffs’ behalf are lawyers from the Center for Constitutional Rights, Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic and the law firms of Schonbrun, Seplow, Harris & Hoffman, LLP and Akerman LLP. Lawyers from the Center for Law, Justice and Society (Dejusticia) are cooperating attorneys. 

Founded in 1945, Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP is a leading international law firm with more than 900 lawyers in offices throughout the United States, Europe, Asia and the Middle East.