• World

Bolivia Calls Ex-President to Court

4 minute read
Jean Friedman-Rudovsky/La Paz

Although Washington has recently been alarmed by Bolivia’s President Evo Morales’ close alliance with Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and by his moves to nationalize energy reserves, the latest challenge to Washington from La Paz comes from the Bolivian judiciary: Last Thursday, the Bolivian Supreme Court allowed the indictment of former president Gonzalo “Goni” Sanchez de Lozada to face trial over the killing of demonstrators in October 2003. Soon, a request for the apprehension of Sanchez de Lozada will arrive in the U.S., where he has lived since resigning four years ago, and that could pose a dilemma for the Bush Administration.

“Once we establish legally that Sanchez de Lozada resides in the U.S.,” says Rogelio Mayta, the attorney acting for relatives of 67 Bolivians killed and others gravely wounded during the 2003 protest, “we send the extradition notice and the U.S. is obligated to send him home.” Bolivia has an extradition agreement with the U.S., ironically signed by Sanchez de Lozada himself in 1995.

The events in question followed mass protests by poor and indigenous Bolivians against Sanchez de Lozada’s plan to export natural gas to the United States via Chile. By October 11, 2003, La Paz was suffering from a fuel shortage because of the blockades in the impoverished highland city of El Alto. On that day, Sanchez de Lozada issued Supreme Decree #27209 which sent the military to escort gas trucks to La Paz. The following week, according to witnesses, the military fired indiscriminately and without warning in El Alto neighborhoods.

“My husband was in his bed sleeping when a bullet came through the window and killed him,” explains Juana Carvajal, El Alto resident and mother of four. More than a dozen people were killed in their homes by ricocheting bullets; one 10-year-old died and of the 400 wounded, several lost limbs. And the widespread outrage at Sanchez de Lozada’s ordering the use of the military against unarmed protesters forced him to resign on October 17.

The indictment against the former president is based on Decree #27209, which the indictment says makes Sanchez de Lozada and 9 of his cabinet members legally responsible for the military’s actions.

This is not the first time Bolivia’s courts have tried to reach the former president in the U.S. In 2005, after the plaintiffs pressed charges, and the Bolivian government sent the U.S. notification papers to be served to Sanchez de Lozada and two former cabinet ministers who also live in the U.S. But although the plaintiffs say they were informed by the State Department that the the papers would be passed on to the Department of Justice, they heard nothing more.

“It hurts to be ignored,” explains Juan Patricio Quispe Mamani, President of the Association of Relatives of those who Died in Defense of the Gas, who lost his brother in October 2003. “The U.S. preaches about human rights but it protects a human rights violator.”

The U.S. Ambassador in Bolivia, Philip Goldberg, stated Monday that the extradition of Sanchez de Lozada is “theoretically possible” but that because the issue was “judicial, not political,” he deferred comment to the U.S. Department of Justice. The DOJ did not return TIME’s repeated calls; nor did Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada himself. The Bolivia-U.S. extradition treaty allows for an exemption for people accused of “political offenses,” and lawyers in Bolivia expect the former president’s lawyers to claim such a status for their client. Indeed, a longtime friend of Sanchez de Lozada, Miami-based consultant Beatrice Rangel, alleges that this is simply a case of “President Morales using his power to start political trials against his predecessors without legal grounds.”

Sanchez de Lozada has little sympathy in Bolivia today — even leading opposition party politicians have stated publicly that he should be brought to trial. A bad reputation, however, notes Jules Lobel, Professor at University of Pittsburgh School of Law and Vice President of the Center for Constitutional Rights, isn’t a legal defense. “While the United States may claim that the accusations fall under the rubric of the political offense exception,” says Lobel, “in my opinion the massacre of hundreds of civilians should not be considered a political offense.”

The legal gray areas established by the extradition treaty and other relevant agreements mean that the case for bringing Sanchez de Lozada home to stand trial may remain suspended in legal limbo for some time. And that’s bad news for the plaintiffs: Under Bolivian law, the statute of limitations for this case ends in August of this year.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com