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Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez was sued Thursday in federal court in Miami, accused of violating the human rights of 15 anti-government protesters who were killed or wounded while demonstrating in front of the presidential palace in Caracas. Family members of the protesters sued under a controversial law that allows non-U.S. residents to sue in U.S. courts over events that occurred in other countries. The plaintiffs claim that the Venezuelan justice system offers no recourse. Six of the 15 demonstrators were killed. The lawsuit names Chavez and more than two-dozen government, military and paramilitary leaders in the South American nation. The claims against the Venezuela leaders include wrongful death, assault and battery, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. The anti-Chavez demonstrators were gunned down April 11, 2002. There is some controversy about whether government or anti-Chavez forces were responsible for the shootings. The plaintiffs allege that the April 2002 shootings violated a variety of international laws, treaties, United Nations resolutions and Florida laws. Their lawsuit, filed by Pedro Martinez-Fraga, a partner at Greenberg Traurig in Miami, cites the Alien Tort Claims Act, a law originally passed by Congress in 1789 to allow victims of piracy on the high seas to sue pirates. The act has been used in recent years to bring human rights actions against foreign officials on behalf of alleged victims of rights violations, including plaintiffs from Cuba and El Salvador. The law allows foreign claimants to bring suit in a U.S. court for any violation of “the law of nations or a treaty of the United States.” Some legal experts, such as former U.S. Solicitor General Robert Bork, have criticized the growing use of the tort claims law to seek recourse in U.S. courts for foreign human rights violations as “judicial imperialism.” THE SUIT Martinez-Fraga’s suit claims that President Chavez planned and ordered the attacks that killed 19 protesters and left many more wounded. Hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans marched on Miraflores Palace, the seat of the presidency, in a protest against the leftist Venezuelan leader. The suit claims that Chavez placed snipers on rooftops and ordered military and paramilitary units to take positions near the presidential palace in anticipation of the demonstrators’ arrival. Once the demonstrators gathered, according to the lawsuit, the troops opened fire on the demonstrators while Chavez, a former paratrooper, directed military operations by radio. “This was a planned, conspiratorial effort to shoot and kill these people who had no weapons and were engaged in a peaceful demonstration,” Martinez-Fraga said. “They wanted to set a precedent to teach the people of Venezuela that if they demonstrated, it was upon [pain of] death or being maimed for life.” Five Venezuelan lawyers are representing the plaintiffs with Martinez-Fraga. They are Alfredo Romero, Eduardo Meier, Gonzalo Himiod, Juan Carlos Sosa and Antonio Rosich. A representative at the Venezuelan Embassy in Washington said officials there had not seen the lawsuit and would not comment until they learned more about it. The lawsuit seeks unspecified compensatory and punitive damages against Chavez and 29 other defendants who allegedly had a hand in the shootings. Martinez-Fraga said they are seeking more than $50 million. The estates of the six slain protesters are joined in the suit by nine additional plaintiffs who were injured during the shooting. WHO’S WHO The defendants are a who’s who of the Venezuelan political and military elite. In addition to Chavez, they include Venezuelan Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel Vale, Attorney General Julian Isaias Rodriguez; chief of the military Gen. Lucas Rincon; Lina Ron, head of the paramilitary group Circulos Bolivarianos, and Chavez’s political party, Movimiento Quinta Republica. PLANNED ASSAULT News of the April 2002 shootings led to international condemnation of Chavez. The violence was followed by a coup that briefly deposed Chavez, who was elected in 1998. The leaders of the coup failed to consolidate power and Chavez was returned to power within days of his ouster. Despite vigorous opposition from the middle and upper classes, he remains in office due to support from Venezuela’s huge population of poor people. At the time of the April 11 demonstration, business and labor groups had announced a work stoppage in an unusual alliance protesting what they called his left-leaning policies and autocratic rule. The work stoppage threw the Venezuelan economy into disarray and slowed oil exports from the oil-rich country. According to the lawsuit, on April 7 Chavez convened a meeting with three top leaders during which they hatched a plan to undermine the scheduled protest on April 11. At the meeting — which the suit says included Rincon, Rodriguez and Rangel — the four leaders allegedly decided to arm a paramilitary group created by Chavez called the Circulos Bolivarianos, place snipers from the country’s intelligence service on rooftops, and mobilize the army. According to the suit, Chavez utilized an emergency operation called the “Avila” plan, which had been designed to fend off an invading army. As part of the plan, the suit alleges, tanks and assault weapons were to be turned on the demonstrators. “We have audiotapes of Chavez giving orders to fire on the demonstrators,” Martinez-Fraga said. On the tapes, which were picked up from two-way radio transmissions, Martinez-Fraga said, the Venezuelan leader is referred to by the code name “Tiburon Uno” — which in English means “Shark One.” Following the April shootings, the plaintiffs in the current case filed suit in the Venezuelan courts in June of last year against many of the same defendants. But that suit, according to the complaint in U.S. District Court in Miami, was denied by the Supreme Tribunal of Justice and referred to the country’s attorney general for investigation. The attorney general, however, is one of defendants, and the suit has languished, according to the complaint. Since the April 2002 violence, there has been some debate about who carried out the shootings. While pro-Chavez forces have been identified as participating in the shootings, some investigators and human rights groups have said that anti-Chavez Metropolitan Police officers also shot at Chavez supporters on that bloody day. In April of this year, the New York Times reported that seven of the 19 dead were Chavez supporters. Definitive answers have not been found because the official investigation of the shootings has stalled. The Chavez government has also failed to bring charges against any suspects. OTHER SUITS In the last decade, there have been an increasing number lawsuits filed in U.S. courts against foreign leaders and foreign governments. Suits against foreign countries have come under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, while foreign leaders have been sued personally under the Alien Tort Claims Act. In 1996, Congress amended the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act to allow U.S. citizens to file suit against countries deemed terrorist nations by the U.S. government. It changed a bedrock principle of international law that individuals cannot sue other autonomous nations and immediately spurred lawsuits against countries such as Cuba, Iraq and Libya. In 1997, for example, family members of three Cuban-Americans who were killed after their unarmed planes were shot down by the Cuban Air Force in international airspace sued the Cuban government. The family members of the Brothers to the Rescue pilots sued in federal court in Miami and were awarded $187 million by U.S. District Judge James Lawrence King. In the waning days of the Clinton administration, the relatives were able to collect about half of the award from the frozen Cuban government assets. In May 2001 Miami lawyer Andrew Hall won a judgment of more than $20 million in U.S. District Court in Washington against the government of Iraq on behalf of four U.S. citizens who were illegally detained by the Saddam Hussein regime after the 1991 Gulf War. In March, Hall collected the multimillion-dollar judgment from frozen Iraqi assets. The Alien Tort Claims Act, on the other hand, went largely unused for 191 years until 1980, when a Paraguayan national named Joel Filartiga filed suit in U.S. District Court in New York against the inspector general of police in Paraguay for the torture and killing of his son, Joelito. After the case was dismissed at the trial level for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in a landmark ruling, reversed the decision and held that a foreign national can sue other foreign nationals for acts that violate “universally accepted norms of the international law of human rights.” The Filartiga decision, the court wrote, “recognized the important principle that the venerable Alien Tort Act … validly creates federal court jurisdiction for suits alleging torts committed anywhere in the against aliens in violations of the law of nations.” The ruling has since been upheld in courts across the country and ratified by Congress. In 1991, Congress slightly amended and renamed the Alien Torts Claim Act the Torture Victim Protection Act. Last year, three Salvadoran nationals, citing the 1789 law, successfully sued two former Salvadoran generals in U.S. District Court in West Palm Beach. The plaintiffs alleged that the former generals, now living in Florida, were complicit in the torture of civilians in the 1980′s. The jury awarded the plaintiffs $54.6 million in damages, though little of that has been collected so far. In May of this year, Martinez-Fraga sued Cuban dictator Fidel Castro and several other Cuban government officials in federal court in Miami under the tort claims act. He filed suit on behalf of jailed dissident journalist Omar Rodriguez Saludes. That case is pending. But observers from a range of political and legal viewpoints have criticized the budding movement to make the United States the world’s human rights adjudicator. In a case pending before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeal, the U.S. Department ofJustice has filed an amicus brief arguing that the Alien Tort Claims Act does not create a cause of action permitting foreign nationals to bring human rights claims in federal courts for conduct occurring in other nations. In that case, El Segundo, Calif.-based Unocal is being sued by Burmese villagers who claim they were raped and tortured by the Myanmar military, which at the same time was providing security and other services for an oil pipeline owned by Unocal. Robert Bork, the former U.S. solicitor general and U.S. Supreme Court nominee, recently wrote in the Wall Street Journal that the use of the tort claims act to bring such actions is a misuse of the law that must be stopped. “When American courts undertake to decide what is lawful and what is unlawful in foreign countries, they risk interfering with the foreign relations of the U.S.,” Bork wrote. “There is a certain resentment when a foreign nation is told by an American court that actions their courts allow are nevertheless illegal.” Bork noted that many Americans and the Bush administration were appalled when a lawsuit was filed in May in a Belgium court against U.S. Army Gen. Tommy Franks for alleged war crimes. “But while we are scoffing,” he wrote, “we ought to consider that our courts are engaged in the same judicial imperialism.” Martinez-Fraga rejects that argument. “Since Filartiga in 1980, there have only been approximately 30 cases, hardly a floodgate of litigation,” he said. “To say this jurisprudence is susceptible to abuse is wrong.” If the suit against Chavez and his cohorts is successful, Martinez-Fraga said, he will attempt to collect by garnishing the assets of the Venezuelan leaders that are held in the United States. “It will be the easiest thing in the world,” Martinez-Fraga said. “All of these thugs have assets in the U.S. and, in particular, South Florida.”

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