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US State Department: Mexico ex-president immune from massacre suit

The US Department of State [official website] on Friday said that former Mexican president Ernesto Zedillo [official profile] should be immune [letter, PDF] from a Connecticut lawsuit [text, PDF] filed over the 1997 killings [AI backgrounder] of 45 people in a Mexican village. The plaintiffs, 10 unidentified men and women, allege that Zedillo was responsible for war crimes, crimes against humanity, cruel, inhuman, and degrading punishment, and other crimes related to a massacre in Acteal, Chiapias, Mexico, and thus liable in the US under the Alien Tort Claims Act [text, PDF]. Specifically, the claim asserts that the former Mexican president planned to arm and train local militias to fight the Zapatista National Liberation Army [Britannica backgrounder] and cover up the ensuing violence in Chiapas. State Department legal adviser Harold Hongju Koh, however, contended without elaboration that Zedillo, now a professor at the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization [official website] is immune from liability [AP report] because the claim involves actions in his capacity as president rather than as a private citizen. The US District Court for the District of Connecticut [official website] will make a ruling on whether the case may proceed.

This recent lawsuit in Connecticut raises the first Chiapas massacre issue of its kind in the US, and has revived a brutal history that the international legal community has left unconsidered for the last three years. In 2009 the Mexico Supreme Court of Justice [official website, in Spanish] ordered the release [JURIST report] of 20 men and a retrial of six others convicted in connection with the 1997 killings. Those 26 were part of 45 rebel sympathizers originally convicted on charges of assault, aggravated homicide, and carrying military firearms. However, the Mexican court found that the evidence of such charges was obtained illegally, and therefore in violation of the Constitution of Mexico [text, PDF]. Prior to the massacre, tensions had long-existed between the federal government and the Chiapas people over the widespread poverty and ethnic inequality in the state.

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