September 27, 2007 / 1:24 AM / 12 years ago

Bolivians sue former president in the United States

LA PAZ, Sept 26 (Reuters) - Relatives of Bolivians killed during violent clashes with security forces in 2003 filed a lawsuit in the United States against former President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, lawyers said on Wednesday.

The plaintiffs claim Sanchez de Lozada ordered a brutal crackdown on protests against his government in October 2003, killing 67 people and wounding hundreds. They want to see him convicted of crimes against humanity.

Sanchez de Lozada quit his post and fled the country soon after the bloody episode, 13 months into his second term as president of the impoverished South American country. He has been living in the United States in self-exile ever since.

The former president has said through representatives in La Paz that he does not intend to return to Bolivia until the country’s justice system can guarantee him a fair trial.

Another lawsuit with the same charges was filed against Carlos Sanchez Berzain, a former interior and defense minister.

"They are the only ones responsible for what we are suffering here in Bolivia, we are not going to allow Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada to tour the United States," Sonia Espejos, the widow of a man killed during the protests, said in La Paz at a news conference to announce the lawsuit.

"The suits ... charge Sanchez de Lozada and Sanchez Berzain with extrajudicial killings and crimes against humanity for their role in the massacre of unarmed civilians, including children," the U.S.-based Center for Constitutional Rights, which is representing the plaintiffs, said in a statement.

In a recent interview with local radio station Fides, Sanchez Berzain said he was the victim of political persecution.

Among the plaintiffs in the case are Eloy Rojas and Etelvina Ramos, whose 8-year-old daughter was killed when a single shot was fired through their window, and Teofilo Baltazar, whose pregnant wife was killed after a bullet tore through the wall of a house, the CCR said.

Earlier this month, Bolivia’s top court asked the government to start extradition proceedings against Sanchez de Lozada, but representatives of the victims say they do not have faith in the country’s justice system.

Rogelio Maita, a lawyer working for the Oct. 2003 Victims Association, said the lawsuits were "the best alternative that we have for justice to be carried out."

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