U.S. judge rules lawsuit against ex-Bolivia leader can move forward

MIAMI (Reuters) - A Miami federal judge will allow a lawsuit to proceed against a former Bolivian president accused of overseeing a deadly military crackdown during 2003 street protests in the South American country.

The suit against Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada and his former defense minister, Carlos Sanchez Berzain, alleges the men ordered the Bolivian military to use violence to tamp down demonstrations over a government plan to export natural gas through Chile.

The protests left more than 60 people dead and hundreds injured. Both men fled Bolivia after the protests and have since lived in exile in the United States.

A judge on Tuesday dismissed efforts by Sanchez de Lozada and Berzain to have the lawsuit dismissed on grounds the Bolivian government has paid compensation to the victims' families. The civil lawsuit seeking unspecified damages was filed by eight families whose relatives died in the unrest.

Lawyers for the men argued they cannot be sued in the United States for alleged abuses that occurred in Bolivia.

However, U.S. District Judge James Cohn said in a ruling those arguments were not enough to void the suit seeking damages under the Alien Tort Claims Act, which has been used by attorneys pursuing international human rights cases.

"Not only did the defendants direct the violent military campaign that led to plaintiffs' relatives' deaths, but they also repeatedly ignored pleas to find peaceful solutions to the protests in the face of a mounting civilian death toll," Cohn wrote.

The suit alleges Sanchez de Lozada, a U.S.-educated mining magnate, ordered Bolivia security forces to "use deadly force to suppress popular protests against government policies."

"These security forces, relying heavily on military sharpshooters with high-powered rifles and machine guns, attacked and killed civilians," it says.

The charges focus on a turbulent period in Bolivia that saw government troops move into parts of the capital, sparking deadly clashes between security forces and protesters.

Supporters of Sanchez de Lozada have said some of the demonstrators were armed and it was difficult to determine who fired shots in the ensuing chaos. The demonstrations forced Sanchez de Lozada to resign in October 2003.

Steve Schulman, a lawyer representing the Bolivian families, said he hoped the ruling could help family members find some answers.

"The defendants have refused to answer questions about their involvement, to go back to Bolivia to face justice and this will force them to defend their roles as military commanders," he said.

Ana Reyes, a lawyer for Sanchez de Lozada and Berzain, said she plans to appeal the ruling.

The cases are Mamani v. Sanchez de Lozada, U.S. District Court, Southern District of Florida, No. 08-21063, and Mamani v. Sanchez Berzain, U.S. District Court, Southern District of Florida, No. 07-22459.

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