APNewsBreak: Ex-Mexico president claims immunity

AP News
Posted: Jan 06, 2012 4:29 PM
APNewsBreak: Ex-Mexico president claims immunity

Former Mexico President Ernesto Zedillo claims in court documents filed Friday that his status as a former national leader gives him immunity from a lawsuit filed in Connecticut over the 1997 killings of 45 people in a Mexican village.

Zedillo's attorneys filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Hartford. A copy of the motion was obtained by The Associated Press.

Zedillo, now an international studies professor at Yale University, also denied the allegations that he bears responsibility for the massacre by paramilitary groups in Acteal, in the southern state of Chiapas, and that he tried to cover up the killings.

Ten unnamed plaintiffs sued Zedillo in September accusing him of crimes against humanity. They are seeking $50 million in damages.

"The plaintiffs' lawsuit against President Zedillo amounts to no more than a misguided effort to impugn the reputation of someone widely regarded by international leaders and scholars as the architect of historic reforms that led Mexico into a new dawn of electoral freedom, respect for human rights, and a flourishing economy," Zedillo's motion says.

"Those who disagree cannot use this court as a vehicle for political revenge," the document says. "The law of sovereign immunity is designed to protect the leaders of our allies from the indignity and expense of defending against just such attacks."

Zedillo was president of Mexico from 1994 to 2000.

A lawyer for the plaintiffs said Friday that Zedillo's claims are false.

"Mr. Zedillo has not been the head of the Mexican government for a number of years and his immunity expired a year after he left office," attorney Roger Kobert said.

Kobert said he was still reviewing the more than 190 pages of documents filed by Zedillo's lawyers on Friday.

The massacre in Acteal on Dec. 22, 1997, 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.

Paramilitaries with alleged government ties attacked Roman Catholic activists who sympathized with the rebels during a prayer meeting in Acteal. 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 plaintiffs' lawsuit, however, alleges that Zedillo's administration ended peace talks with the Zapatistas and launched a plan to arm and train local militias to fight against 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 lawsuit says Zedillo "knew or should have known that his subordinates were committing human rights abuses, and he failed to prevent the abuses or punish those responsible."

Lawyers for the plaintiffs, who included people injured in the attack and relatives of some of the dead, have said their clients don't want their names revealed because they fear for their safety.

Sixty people convicted in the massacre have been freed after judges found irregularities in their prosecutions. Thirty-five convicts remain in prison.

Zedillo's lawyers say they have no knowledge of the U.S. ever rejecting a former head of state's claim for immunity from a lawsuit involving official acts.

State Department officials have been asked to issue an opinion on whether they believe Zedillo has immunity from the lawsuit. Once agency officials issue an opinion or announce they've declined to review the matter, the plaintiffs are then expected to file documents opposing the motion to dismiss.

Zedillo's lawyers said a quick dismissal of the case is vital.

"So long as this case remains on the docket, nations around the world will appropriately question whether their former heads of state can travel to the United States without being forced to defend official actions they took in their own countries," the motion to dismiss says.

"In return, foreign governments and foreign courts may doubt the U.S. commitment to reciprocity on immunity, leaving our own nation's former officials _ including our former presidents _ stripped of the assurance of immunity that they ordinarily enjoy in foreign nations," it says.