By Robert Cyr
A new ruling has been issued in an intriguing international human rights case unfolding in Hartford federal court. It involves a former Mexican president and the court has jurisdiction because he is now a professor at Yale University and a resident of Connecticut.
The court must decide on a decision last week by a Mexican court that may possibly prevent former President Ernesto Zedillo from claiming he has immunity as a former head of state, forcing him to face the charges against him. Matthew D. Gordon, a West Hartford lawyer representing the plaintiffs, said they are still analyzing the Mexican court ruling that states that since the lawsuit against Zedillo is personal and not against Mexico and he is no longer in an official capacity, the Mexican constitution does not provide him with immunity protection. The local federal court had not yet ruled on granting Zedillo’s request for immunity, which was recommended by the U.S. State Department after receiving a request from the U.S. Mexican Ambassador, who the Mexican court decision also says overstepped his authority.
The immunity would shield Zedillo from facing charges in a lawsuit that alleges he knew of and helped cover-up the slaughter of 45 Mexican villagers in the late 1990s. President of Mexico from 1994 to 2000, he has lived in Connecticut for the past 13 years and teaches political science and international economics at Yale. Zedillo, who did not return calls for comment, “has been engaged fully as a faculty member at Yale while he has defended the suit,” said school spokesman Thomas Conroy.
The 53-page lawsuit was filed at U.S. District court in Hartford in September, 2011 by the Miami firm Rafferty, Kobert, Tenenholtz, Bounds & Hess, and Gordon, who is acting as local counsel. They filed the lawsuit on behalf of 10 anonymous plaintiffs. The suit claims Zedillo was responsible for the massacre in 1997 by paramilitary groups in the village of Acteal, in the southern state of Chiapas, and tried to cover it up. The suit was filed anonymously because the plaintiffs fear retaliation.
Gordon said he would like to see the court ask the State Department for a formal reconsideration of the immunity request; there is no guarantee the agency will reverse its decision. He added, “We would like to believe that the State Department had no idea the Mexican ambassador was acting outside his country’s constitutionality. We will make the court aware of that and request the court to entertain verbal arguments.”
Shortly after the lawsuit was filed, Zedillo told the Associated Press that “the allegations, as reported by the press, are totally groundless and obviously false,” and “It is obvious to me that whoever is behind that lawsuit is not really seeking justice for the innocent people whose lives were so painfully devastated by that outrageous crime.”
The massacre has been called the worst case of violence during a conflict that began when the Zapatista movement conducted a military uprising in the early 1990s, demanding more rights for Chiapas Indians. Over the course of two hours, paramilitaries with alleged government backing killed Roman Catholic activists who supported rebels during a prayer meeting in Acteal. The 45 dead included 18 pregnant women, seven men, 16 girls aged between eight months and 17 years, and four children aged between two and 15. Another 26 people were injured, mostly children, including four with permanent injuries, according to Mexican daily newspaper El Diario.
The lawsuit charges Zedillo with war crimes, crimes against humanity; cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment; terror and violence to violate freedom of association; terror and violence to violate freedom of thought, political opinion and freedom to exercise the political franchise.
A Complex International Legal Case
The recent findings by the Mexican court are the latest development in a complicated legal case, involving several government and judicial officials and agencies in two countries over events that unfolded more than 15 years ago.
The claim of immunity by Zedillo led to a sharp response from the plaintiffs as demonstrated in court documents. One section states, “…our federal courts do not automatically ‘punt’ whenever the State Department speaks. Zedillo’s imperious demands to be released from this lawsuit – NOW! – are hollow and selfish. Due process requires that these matters – all of Zedillo’s making – resolve seasonably and according to law, not according to whoever yells the loudest. All evidence indicates that our State Department was grossly misled by the Immunity Request and lacked necessary information before issuing its Suggestion of Immunity.”
The question of the motivations behind the lawsuit and who is paying for legal fees has been a contentious one. Zedillo’s lawyer, New Haven attorney Jonathan Freiman, chair of the Appellate and Complex Legal Issues Practice Group at Wiggin & Dana, has called the lawsuit “clearly political,” and said that “I have no personal knowledge about who is behind the lawsuit. Whatever the motivation, and whoever the plaintiffs really are, this is a baseless lawsuit, and it should be promptly dismissed.”
A 2011 article in the Yale Daily News reported Las Abejas wrote on their blog that the case was motivated by politics and money. The plaintiffs have shown 12 pieces of evidence on their website, ranging from news articles to government memos that allegedly link Zedillo to the massacre.
According to the lawsuit, the plaintiffs seek compensation in an amount the court sees fit. El Diario has published several of the plaintiff’s names and puts the monetary damages sought in the neighborhood of $50 million. The lawsuit alleges that Zedillo dropped negotiations with the Zapatistas and armed and trained militias to fight them. It also states that Zedillo knew of the Acteal killings, covered them up and violated international human rights laws under the Geneva Convention and other human rights laws.
A Wild Card
The case of Zedillo could only get more complicated, depending on the outcome of a separate case now ongoing that involves the same controversial laws used to prosecute him, said William Dunlap, a law professor at Quinnipiac University. “The plaintiffs here have an even bigger problem,” he said.
The lawsuit against Zedillo was filed under the federal Alien Tort Claims Act, which lets people alleging violations of international law to sue in the United States, and the Torture Victims Protection Act, which permits damages for torture and illegal killings abroad. The legitimacy of the Alien Tort Claims Act is now being challenged in the case of Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Shell Petroleum, in which the oil giant is being sued for crimes against humanity, Dunlap said. Kiobel charges that Shell colluded with Nigerian officials to torture and kill Ogoni activists.
The federal court in that case is weighing whether the law can be invoked for crimes committed outside the United States. The law does not specify where the crimes can happen, he said. If the Alien Tort law is found not to apply in the Shell case, “the Zedillo case is dead in the water,” Dunlap said.
A Case for Zedillo
Zedillo’s defense asserts that his record on human rights and leadership is not one that results from a political career of corruption and murder. He was awarded the 2001 Democracy and Peace Award of the Institute of the Americas, which recognized President Zedillo’s “exemplary reform and modernization of Mexico’s electoral laws and process.”
He was also awarded the 2002 Franklin D. Roosevelt Freedom from Fear Award, for having “led a peaceful revolution that has strengthened democracy and brought prosperity and respect for human rights to the people of his country,” Frieman said. After the massacre, Zedillo called for a full investigation from Mexican and international bodies. He fully cooperated with Mexico’s independent National Human Rights Commission and by its autonomous federal Office of the Attorney General, culminating in the prosecution of individuals suspected of involvement in the attack, Freiman said. The Mexican government offered health care, psychological services and economic support for survivors of the attack.
“The attack in Acteal was an appalling tragedy,” said Freiman. “But that tragedy was not the result of an elaborate conspiracy by the Mexican federal government. His faceless accusers have been denounced by Las Abejas, an organization representing the victims of the Acteal massacre, as imposters manipulating ‘the memory of the martyrs of Acteal… for political-election and economic purposes’.”