Hold former president accountable

Gustavo Guzman, Oct. 18, 2007

Marlene Rojas was 8 years old, one of five daughters born to Eloy Rojas and Etelvina Ramos in the indigenous Aymara town of Warisata, Bolivia. On Sept. 20, 2003. a bullet entered through a window in the family's home and into her small body, killing her instantly. This bullet was fired by the Bolivian Army, sent by then-President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada to put down popular protests with the use of force.

Marlene's parents are part of a group of Bolivians who presented civil charges on Sept. 26 in a U.S. court against Sánchez de Lozada and one of his ministers at the time, Carlos Sánchez Berzaín, both of whom have been living in the United States since 2003. The civil suit counts on the support of lawyers and human-rights activists from the Center for Constitutional Rights and Harvard. As James Cavallaro, director of the Human Rights Program at Harvard University Law School, told The Washington Post, ``This case goes to the heart of preventing impunity.''

Marlene's is one of many innocent deaths and, in addition to the U.S. civil suit, the Bolivian Supreme Court has authorized a lawsuit in Bolivia against the ex-president and his ministers.

Bolivia and the United States have a bilateral extradition treaty signed in 1995. This is where the United States can make a difference, by showing its respect for rule of law and bolstering democracy in the region. Last month's developments to legally prosecute ex-President Alberto Fujimori and collaborators of ex-President Augusto Pinochet show that, as Chilean President Michelle Bachelet simply put it, ``No one is above the law.''

The charges against Sánchez de Lozada and Berzaín refer to their responsibility in the deaths of 67 civilians between Sept. 20 and Oct. 12, 2003, during protests against government support of a program to export natural gas, enormous reserves of which had been discovered three years earlier. The program would provide no benefits for the Bolivian public, the majority of which is poor and indigenous.

Protests were led by Evo Morales, a coca-union leader and indigenous congressman who is now Bolivia's president. One of his electoral promises took shape -- the sovereign right of the Bolivian state to oversee its gas and petroleum reserves -- which he would fulfill after becoming the nation's first indigenous president.

On Oct. 11 and 12, Bolivian military units, armed for warfare, were sent to put down social protests in El Alto, the indigenous city next to La Paz where soldiers killed dozens of people and seriously injured hundreds. On Oct. 17, Sánchez de Lozada wrote a letter to Congress renouncing office and left the country. Since Oct. 18, 2003, he and his ex-minister Sánchez Berzaín reside in the United States.

Their actions have been repudiated at the highest levels in Bolivia and across party lines. One of the first positions against this violence was taken by Sánchez de Lozada's own vice-president at the time, a journalist and historian named Carlos Mesa. Twenty-four hours after the results of the military operation in El Alto became public, Mesa stood before the press and made the decision to publicly distance himself from the government while remaining vice-president. Soon after, Sánchez de Lozada and Sánchez Berzaín fled, and Mesa was named president, according to the constitution.

Another former president, Jorge Quiroga Ramírez, who leads the main opposition party in Bolivia, recently commented on the case: ``We hope that the U.S. government will practice what it preaches, with respect to democracy and human rights, and that it will move forward the legal notifications presented by Bolivia's Supreme Court.''

The parents of Marlene Rojas, the girl killed by a so-called democratic government, never imagined that they would count on support from Quiroga, himself part of Boliviàs ruling elite. Nor do Eloy Rojas and Etelvina Ramos yet know the words of the United States' Founding Father John Adams, who called for, ``A government of laws and not of men.''

It is time for the United States to show its respect for rule of law at home and abroad by returning these men to Bolivia to stand trial. By doing so, the United States will uphold Adams' declaration and deliver what Marlene's parents have been asking for, in their own words: ``justice -- nothing more than justice.''

Gustavo Guzmán is ambassador of Bolivia to the United States.

Republished from Miami Herald

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This sounds like a war crimes issue that should be taken up with the world court---Crimes against humanity and all that.This kind of thing is not just white collar crime, because they sit behind a desk. Politicos need to know that they will be held accountable. Their time will come!