HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — A federal appeals court has upheld the dismissal of a lawsuit accusing former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo of bearing some responsibility for a 1997 massacre in a Mexican village and covering it up.
A three-judge panel of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York City on Tuesday rejected an appeal by 10 people who sued Zedillo for $50 million in 2011. The court upheld a ruling by U.S. District Judge Michael Shea in Hartford last July that Zedillo is immune from lawsuits as a former head of state.
The unnamed plaintiffs say they are survivors of the killings of 45 people in Acteal in the southern state of Chiapas on Dec. 22, 1997. They sued Zedillo in federal court in Connecticut, where Zedillo is an international studies professor at Yale University in New Haven.
Zedillo, who was president of Mexico from 1994 to 2000, has said allegations in the lawsuit are slanderous and groundless, and the U.S. State Department backed his immunity claim.
The plaintiffs argued that Shea improperly dismissed their lawsuit without giving them a chance to amend it.
"The additional allegations Plaintiffs want to press — that Zedillo was personally involved in the massacre and that the Mexican Ambassador's request for immunity was invalid — would not overcome the immunity," the appeals court ruled.
It's not clear if the plaintiffs will try to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. Their Miami-based lawyer, Roger Kobert, declined to comment on the ruling Thursday.
"We're weighing our options at this point," he said.
Zedillo's lawyer, Jonathan Freiman, said the federal appeals court made the right decision. "We are gratified that this baseless lawsuit has been dismissed," he said.
The massacre was the worst instance of violence during a conflict that began when the Zapatista movement staged a brief armed uprising in early 1994 to demand more rights for Indians in Chiapas. During a prayer meeting in Acteal, paramilitaries with alleged government ties attacked Roman Catholic activists who sympathized with the rebels. The assailants killed 45 people over several hours, including children as young as 2 months old.
After the killings, Zedillo denounced them as criminal and urged government and human rights officials to investigate.
The lawsuit alleges that Zedillo's administration ended peace talks with the Zapatistas and launched a plan to arm and train local militias to fight them. It also claims Zedillo was aware of the actions in Acteal, covered them up and broke international human rights laws under the Geneva Conventions as well as a host of other laws.
The plaintiffs' lawyer argued that the State Department based its immunity recommendation on an illegal and unauthorized letter by the Mexican ambassador to the U.S. Kobert said the ambassador's letter to U.S. officials was declared void by a Mexican court, which ruled that the ambassador wasn't authorized to request immunity for Zedillo.
A Mexican appellate court later overturned that ruling, but Kobert said it was based on a technicality and not on the merits of whether the ambassador's letter was illegal.