U.S. jury finds ex-Bolivia leader responsible for civilian deaths

LA PAZ (Reuters) - A U.S. jury on Tuesday found former Bolivian President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada and his defense minister responsible for civilian deaths during 2003 street protests in Bolivia, awarding $10 million in compensatory damages to victims’ families.

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The civil lawsuit was brought a decade ago by eight families whose relatives died during a period of unrest in the poor South American nation. The case went to trial at a federal court in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

The plaintiffs accused Bolivia’s former government leaders of ordering the military to use violence to crack down on demonstrations against a plan to export natural gas through neighboring Chile.

Defense lawyers representing the former leaders said they would seek to overturn the verdict.

The protests during the so-called gas wars in Bolivia left more than 60 people dead and hundreds injured. Sanchez de Lozada, a U.S.-educated mining magnate, and his former defense minister Carlos Sanchez Berzain resigned in October 2003. Both now reside in the United States.

The protests helped spur leftist leader Evo Morales’ rise to power. He fulfilled protesters’ demands to nationalize the gas industry after taking office in 2006.

“My respect and admiration for the relatives of the victims of October 2003, for their perseverance, firmness and strength in obtaining a judicial decision that brings us closer and closer to justice,” Morales said on Twitter on Tuesday.

Bolivia’s government has repeatedly sought Lozada’s extradition.

The family members are represented by a team of lawyers from the nonprofit Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic, and several private law firms. The United States allows for the filing of civil suits in the country in certain international human rights cases.

The plaintiffs included a couple whose eight-year-old daughter was shot by a stray bullet.

The CCR said in a statement that the three-week trial was the first time in U.S. history that a former head of state had sat before accusers in a U.S. human rights trial.

Supporters of Sanchez de Lozada have said some of the demonstrators were armed and it was difficult to determine who fired shots in the ensuing chaos.

“We disagree with the jury’s verdict and believe that the proof was so lacking that the case never should have gotten to a jury,” defense lawyers Stephen D. Raber and Ana C. Reyes of Williams & Connolly said in a statement.

Reporting by Danny Ramos in La Paz; additional reporting by Caroline Stauffer in Buenos Aires