Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Thousands Protest U.S. Asylum for Sanchez Berzaín



June 9 - Shortly after 10 am, several thousand protestors from El Alto marched into La Paz and surrounded the U.S. Embassy. The mainly indigenous protestors were demanding the return of ex-President Sánchez de Lozada and ex-Minister of Defense Sánchez Berzaín to Bolivia. Both men are facing a civil suit in the U.S. and charges in Bolivia for the death of almost 70 civilians during the 2003 “Guerra del Gas.”

On June 3, Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada and Carlos Sanchez Berzaín’s U.S. lawyers distributed a press release which affirms that the U.S. government granted ex-defense minister Sánchez Berzain asylum in 2007, and claiming that, as a result, he cannot be prosecuted:

To grant him asylum, under the applicable legal standard, the Executive made a finding that Minister Berzaín was credible. …. The U.S. Executive also found that, based on his application, he is a “refugee,” i.e. one who is unable or unwilling to return to the country of removal “because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of . . . political opinion.” 8 U.S.C. § 1101(a)(42)(A) (2000). A refugee cannot be prosecuted in U.S. courts for the very actions for which the United States has found he would be persecuted at home.” (p.17)

It argues further that Sánchez de Lozada is also immune from prosecution as an ex-head of state. The press release also affirms that the:

“Motion to Dismiss reveals just released and never before seen documents from the State Department that not only show the U.S. government's full support for the Sánchez de Lozada government in 2003, but also demonstrate the culpability of current President Evo Morales and his allies for the violence and casualties that lie at the heart of the action brought against the former president and defense minister.”

The text of the motion and evidence presented, including a U.S. State Department document from 2004 which contains inaccurate and misleading information, fail to convincingly argue these points. The defense team also presented U.S. Embassy cables from ex-Ambassador Greenlee obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests.

The press release argues that, “...it would potentially reverse judgments the State Department previously made supporting the Bolivian government’s actions.”

It is erroneous to assume that U.S. State Department's documents, especially those that have been systematically refuted, can be upheld as undisputable fact in civil legal proceedings or that U.S. Courts should not have the ability to question {and} evaluate the accuracy of U.S. State Department actions.

Affirmations of strong U.S. government support for Sánchez de Lozada and Sánchez Berzaín, has rekindled resentment over past U.S. intervention in Bolivian politics and continuing frustration among the residents of El Alto, where the majority of the deaths occurred, about the lack of judicial consequences for the deaths.

U.S. officials did not respond to letters rogatory presented by the Bolivian government to legally inform both men, currently residing in the U.S., of the charges against them. The formal extradition request should be presented to the U.S. Department of Justice in the next few months, but is expected to face extended delays and appeals.

Expressing the discontent of many Bolivians over this process, on June 8, President Morales stated, “We would like for, not just the U.S. Ambassador, but also the U.S. government to help us to bring to justice those that have hurt Bolivia a great deal.”

Protestors Surround the U.S. Embassy in La Paz

The angry crowd, that extended four blocks around the Embassy, included many students from the National University of El Alto. Protestors surrounded the embassy--some carrying Bolivian flags and chanting “Listen, listen!” They threw firecrackers over the wall of the embassy, in an attempt to get their message through the gates, and bashed in cars parked nearby. Apparently, the protest had been announced, and most embassy staff were not inside the installation.

The National Police surrounded the exterior of the embassy, wearing riot gear and attempting, at first, to peacefully control the protestors. Security vehicles were parked in front of the gates to prevent any protestors from breaking through. In response, protestors threw rocks and firecrackers at the police. Around 1 pm, the police began tear-gassing and spraying protestors with water cannons. Although protestors left the area, the tension is far from over.


Photos: ABI

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