Sunday, June 15, 2008

U.S. Protection Re-ignites Unease, Raises Questions

(digitalwarriormedia) As of Tuesday, the Bolivian government confirmed that the United States has granted political asylum to former Defense Minister Carlos Sanchez Berzaín.

Gustavo Guzman, Bolivian Ambassador to the United States, released a series of documents to the press earlier this week confirming the June 5 announcement made by Berzaín on Radio Erbol.

The announcement sparked a protest several thousand strong at the U.S. Embassy in La Paz on Monday. Individuals threw firecrackers at the U.S. flag while helmeted Marines observed from the roof of the building.

According to Ambassador Guzman the situation, "complicates the relationship between Bolivia and the United States."

Guzman also denounced Berzaín for statements he has frequently made in the U.S. media criticizing the Bolivian government. He noted that Berzaín, who now lives in Key Biscayne, Florida, is a frequent guest on TV and Radio Marti – two U.S. funded broadcasting stations based in Miami that transmit pro-American propoganda to Cuba.

Berzaín has had indefinite asylum in the U.S. since May 1, 2007. He will lose this status if he is formally accused of committing crimes, according to the letter sent by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Political asylum could also be revoked if Berzaín’s petition was found to contain untrue statements, said Judith Chomsky - an international human rights lawyer who is part of a legal team that filed civil charges against Berzaín and Goni in the U.S. last year

According to Chomsky, Berzaín submitted documents for his asylum that claimed he did not have any criminal charges pending against him in Bolivia.

“This is not accurate,” said Chomsky, who in cooperation with the Harvard Law International Human Rights Clinic, the Center for Constitutional Rights, and the law firm of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, is suing on behalf of 10 Aymaran plaintiffs who lost relatives during the Gas War of 2003.

The suit demands punitive and compensatory damages for the actions of these former Bolivian leaders. Without U.S. government cooperation to return Berzaín and Goni back to Bolivia, this is one of the only options available for these families within the U.S. justice system.

“If the U.S. is unwilling to extradite, then the alternative is to file a civil case in the U.S. courts,” said Chomsky. Although she believes the most appropriate place for these men to be charged is in Bolivia.

Chomsky, a human rights activist for more than 40 years, noted that "immunity defense" claims by Berzaín and Goni do not apply to human rights abuses. These charges are considered a “global reason” to prosecute violators, who cannot be protected for political reasons.
Waldo Albarracín, Bolivia’s Defensor del Pueblo (Public Ombudsman), explained that there is no justification for these men to remain in the U.S. He told El Deber that based upon the Convention Related to the Status of Refugees - adopted by the United Nations’ General Assembly in 1951 - asylum and refugee status would not apply in this case.

According to Albarracin, the statute establishes several requirements for refugees and clearly delineates that no person being charged with political crimes or crimes against humanity can benefit from refugee status.

However both men are well connected, having affiliations with powerful circles within Washington D.C.

In 2002, Goni hired Democratic strategist James Carville’s firm, Greenberg Carville Shrum, to direct his second campaign for Bolivia’s presidency. One of Berzaín’s lawyers is high-profile Washington lawyer, Greg Craig, who now serves as foreign policy advisor to Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama.

Orders from Berzaín and Sanchez de Lozada induced the military to attack citizens of El Alto, who were protesting the export of natural gas to the U.S. via a Chilean port in October 2003.

Both men are accused of crimes against humanity, extrajudicial execution and genocide for the murder of 67 people and 400 wounded. Another nine victims died in the ensuing months due to the severity of their wounds. Among the dead were an 8-year old girl, who was shot in the chest while peering out of a window, as well as a pregnant woman and her unborn child. Most of the victims were indigenous Aymarans.

Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca called U.S. Ambassador to Bolivia, Phillip Goldberg, to meet with him on Tuesday and explain the position of the U.S Government for protecting these men. According to the Bolivian press, Choquehuanca left the meeting dissatisfied with the explanations leveled by Goldberg and he said the government will continue to demand more information from the U.S.

Formal papers for the extradition of Goni, Berzaín and former hydrocarbons minister Jorge Berindoague, have yet to be filed with the U.S. government, which according to Ambassador Guzman, are eight months delayed. In October 2006, Bolivia’s Congress voted by a two-thirds margin that these men could be charged as civilians for their role in “Black October”

At this time Goni’s legal status within the U.S. is unknown. Goni’s people are not saying, but Bolivian government officials expect he has received protected status as well.

*Photos: ABI and Indymedia Bolivia



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