Politics & Government

Lawsuit against former Bolivian president moved to Florida

WASHINGTON — A federal judge on Tuesday moved a civil lawsuit against a former Bolivian president over dozens of deaths there from political strife from Maryland to Florida to avoid duplication and "potentially inconsistent rulings."

Six law firms and human rights groups filed the suit against former Bolivian President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada in federal court in Maryland, where Sanchez de Lozada lives, demanding compensation for relatives of the estimated 67 people killed during the 2003 protests that forced him into U.S. exile.

They've filed a similar case in Miami against former Bolivian Defense Minister Jose Carlos Sanchez Berzain.

Sanchez de Lozada's lawyers had petitioned for the transfer so that both cases could be heard together. The plaintiffs had opposed the transfer, saying Sanchez de Lozada's ties to south Florida are negligible, but the defense countered that he has a Miami bank account, has business interests there and travels there frequently.

U.S. District Judge Alexander Williams agreed, noting that the Florida case against Sanchez Berzain was "virtually identical" to the case against Sanchez de Lozada. He noted that the plaintiffs and defendants shared the same attorneys and said that transfering the case would make it easier for witnesses to testify.

"The court does not believe that keeping this case in this court is in the interest of justice, when it would inevitably lead to duplicative litigation -- and potentially inconsistent rulings -- and would do nothing to conserve judicial resources," Williams said. He said it was "at least arguable" that, as the defense said, the plaintiffs were "attempting to take two bites at the apple."

The lawsuit, brought by 10 Bolivians, accuses the former Bolivian leader and stalwart U.S. ally of committing crimes against humanity and extrajudicial killings. Sanchez de Lozada argues that Bolivia's current president, Evo Morales, and his supporters, are responsible for the deaths because they orchestrated a violent uprising against him.

A shaken Sanchez de Lozada fled Bolivia in October 2003, saying he had been the victim of a conspiracy to overthrow him. Bolivia wants the United States to extradite the former president, and the State Department is to file a legal brief in the case.