A consortium of United States human rights lawyers including Beth Stephens, a Rutgers Law professor, have won a landmark case against Bolivia’s ex-president and former defense minister after a U.S. federal court jury found them legally responsible for planning and ordering the use of military force to suppress protests against government policies.
In a civil case tried under the U.S. Torture Victim Protection Act (TVPA) and Florida law, the court awarded $10 million to the victims’ families. The TVPA allows civil suits in the United States in cases of extrajudicial killings and torture carried out by foreign governments.
In 2003, at least 60 people were killed and more than 400 people were injured when soldiers opened fire during protests over a proposed natural gas pipeline in the city of El Alto, near La Paz.
Soon after the protests, Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, ex-president of Bolivia, and his former defense minister, José Carlos Sánchez Berzaín, fled their country for the United States, claiming political persecution.
Stephens says this verdict shows that the United States should not be a safe haven for human rights abusers.
“Coming here does not mean that you have escaped accountability for what you did at home,” says Stephens, a distinguished professor of law at Rutgers, and an attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights, one of the litigants for the plaintiffs.
The team of attorneys began preparing for the case in 2008. Over the years, Stephens traveled to Bolivia seven times, meeting with men and women who lost family members during the military crackdown on the protests. She listened to their stories and gave status updates about court filings, delays, and appeals over many years. Through it all, the families were unwavering in their quest for justice.
“At every stage of the way they would be the ones consoling us,” says Stephens. “They would say, ‘We knew this would be difficult. We know the struggle is long, and of course we want to keep going.’”
The lawyers in the case represented nine plaintiffs, including a couple whose eight-year-old daughter was killed when a bullet came through a window in the family’s home, a woman whose husband was shot and killed as he was closing a window in their home, and the husband of a pregnant woman who was killed when a bullet came through a wall. The couple’s unborn child also died.
To prepare for the case, Stephens received assistance from fellow Rutgers Law faculty and students. While teaching the mini clinic “Human Rights Advocacy and Litigation,” at the Camden location, Stephens had the opportunity to work with her students to conduct research and write about human rights issues, and draft declarations.
Rutgers Law faculty, including Roger Clark, Katie Eyer, and Kati Kovacs, conducted a moot court in preparation for an appeal Stephens argued. “Some of them asked the obvious questions and some of them asked really difficult questions to prepare me for what I would likely expect from the appellate judges,” says Stephens. “It was extraordinarily helpful.”
In March, the plaintiffs traveled from Bolivia to testify at the trial in Fort Lauderdale.
“It was a very serious time commitment for the trial,” says Stephens. “They weren’t required to be in court every day, but they went every day. They were focused on the task and the reason they were here in the United States.”
Outside of the courthouse, some of them held up large photos of their loved ones who were killed.
When the jury returned with its precedent-setting verdict on April 3, the legal team and the plaintiffs were very emotional, remembering the people who were killed, and now winning a battle they’ve been waging for 15 years.
“We were very excited that the defendants had been held accountable for their actions,” says Stephens.