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Massacre Survivors Still Trying to Get Former President of Mexico Into Conn. Court
The Connecticut Law Tribune
Ernesto Zedillo, the former president of Mexico who now teaches at Yale University, says he's focusing on his scholarly duties, according to his lawyer, and not getting himself distracted by "a frivolous lawsuit."
But the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Connecticut -- accusing Zedillo of covering up a massacre of 45 civilians in the village of Acteal in 1997 -- may not be so frivolous after all.
Zedillo has long claimed he can't be sued for any actions he took while president of Mexico. And last year, the U.S. State Department submitted a letter to the court asking it to grant Zedillo immunity in the case. Since it's common for the State Department to make such requests and for courts to grant them, many legal experts predicted the suit would be dismissed.
But late last month, a Mexican court ruled that Zedillo enjoys no such immunity under that country's constitution. And now plaintiffs lawyers are hopeful to get their day in court after all.
"It's a very important development because the issue the court is currently considering is whether in fact to give credence to and follow the suggestion of the State Department that the court dismiss the lawsuit," said plaintiffs lawyer Matthew Dallas Gordon, of West Hartford, Conn.
At the same time, the Mexican court invalidated a letter requesting immunity sent last year by the Mexican ambassador to the U.S. to then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The court ruled that it lacked at least one critical signature and overall authorization by other Mexican government leaders.
"We're certainly hopeful the [U.S. District Court] would look at that issue, want to know more about it, and at least circle back to the State Department and ask whether its view has changed in light of this development," Gordon said.
Zedillo's lawyer, however, believes the latest developments should not affect the case and that the court will ultimately grant the request for immunity. "It shouldn't have any effect on the litigation at all," said Jonathan M. Freiman, of Wiggin and Dana in New Haven, Conn. "The U.S. State Department has issued its suggestion of immunity under well-settled, binding Supreme Court precedents. The District Court is required to follow the suggestion of immunity."
Freiman said the State Department has done nothing in the wake of the Mexican court developments. Further, he said, the Mexican ambassador to the U.S., the current Mexican president and the country's foreign minister also sanctioned the immunity request. "We are advised by our Mexican co-counsel that the [Mexican court] decision is erroneous and likely to be reversed on appeal," said Freiman.
Zedillo, the current director of Yale University's Center for the Study of Globalization, served as president of Mexico from 1994 until 2000.
During his presidency, there was a series of violent conflicts in the Mexican state of Chiapas. They involved the leftist Zapatista movement, which demanded more rights for Indians living in the region. In 1997, paramilitary soldiers with alleged government ties attacked Roman Catholic activists, who sympathized with the rebels, during a prayer meeting. The assailants killed 45 people over several hours, including children as young as two months old.
After the killings, Zedillo denounced the attackers as criminals and urged government and human rights officials to investigate.
The 53-page Connecticut lawsuit, however, alleges that Zedillo's administration had ended peace talks with the Zapatistas and had launched a plan to arm and train local militias to do combat with the rebels. The lawsuit also claims Zedillo was aware of the massacre plans and kept them secret, in the process breaking international human rights laws under the Geneva Conventions, as well as Mexican common laws.
The complaint further alleges that Zedillo later conspired with Jorge Madrazo Cuellar, Mexico's solicitor general and attorney general, to cover up the president's role in the attacks. As part of that cover-up, about 128 people from the area near Acteal were rounded up and arrested, the plaintiffs claim.
In October 2007, 34 people were convicted of various crimes, including homicide and aggravated battery, and many were sentenced to 26 years in prison. In August 2009, however, the Mexican Supreme Court overturned 20 of those convictions due to prosecutorial misconduct, and ordered the prisoners released after 11 years.
In September 2011, Gordon and Miami-based attorney Roger Kobert filed a lawsuit in federal court in Connecticut under the Alien Tort Claims Act, which allows U.S. court to hear cases involving human rights abuses in other countries.
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of survivors of the massacre and widows and children of some of the victims. The plaintiffs, four women and six men, filed the suit anonymously to protect themselves from possible retaliation.
The case is pending before U.S. District Judge Michael Shea.