On July 18th the U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut dismissed a private lawsuit under the U.S. Alien Tort Statute and Torture Victims Protection Act against Ernesto Zedillo, a former President of Mexico.
The written dismissal order merely states that it was for the reasons stated at the oral argument that day. Those reasons, according to the attorney for Mr. Zedillo, centered on the court’s deferring to the U.S. Department of State’s conclusion that Mr. Zedillo was entitled to immunity as a former head of state of Mexico sued for alleged acts taken in his official capacity. This was confirmed in the transcript of the court’s ruling.
The State Department’s position, which was provided to the court in September 2012, was based upon “principles of immunity articulated by the Executive Branch in the exercise of its constitutional authority over foreign affairs and informed by customary international law, and considering the overall impact of this matter on the foreign policy of the [U.S.].” These principles of officials’ immunity included the following:
- Under the law and practice of nations, a foreign sovereign is generally immune from lawsuits in the territory of another sovereign.
- Until the 1976 enactment of the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA), U.S. federal courts routinely “‘surrendered’ jurisdiction over suits against foreign sovereigns ‘on recognition, allowance and certification of the asserted immunity by the political branch of the government charged with the conduct of foreign affairs when its certificate to that effect was presented to the court.'”
- Under the U.S. Constitution, the executive branch of the federal government had the responsibility for foreign affairs.
- A “sitting head of state’s immunity is based on his status as the incumbent office holder and extends to all his actions.” (Emphasis added.)
- For a former official, on the other hand, immunity “is based upon the character of that official’s conduct and extends only to acts taken in an official capacity” with a presumption that “actions taken by a foreign official exercising the powers of his office were taken in his official capacity.”
- Such a presumption “is particularly appropriate when a former head of state is sued, because holders of a country’s highest office may be expected to be on duty at all times and to have wide-ranging responsibilities.”
- That presumption is corroborated when “the foreign government itself has asserted that the actions of its official were taken in an official capacity.”
The court’s dismissal also relied upon the U.S.’ advising the court on May 15, 2013, that it did not intend to appear at the July 18th hearing and that it “rests on its [previous] Suggestion of Immunity.” The court saw this advice “as a reaffirmation of the State Department’s Suggestion of Immunity, but even if it were a Statement of Neutrality, as the Plaintiffs’ contend, the fact is that the State Department has not withdrawn its Suggestion of Immunity.”
The U.S. court also noted that on May 23rd an unanimous Mexican appellate court reversed a lower court’s ruling that the Mexican government’s request for Zedillo’s immunity was illegal under Mexican law.
The Mexican appellate court held that the Mexican plaintiffs in the U.S. case were not injured bythat Mexican government’s request because it was a “communiqué between Sates, and is a suggestion or proposal of immunity that the neighboring country [the U.S.] may or may not accept.” The appellate court also denied a motion to have the Mexican Supreme Court of Justice review the case, thereby finally ending the Mexican case.
According to the U.S. court, “even if . . . [the lower Mexican court’s decision had been affirmed], I find that it would ultimately be irrelevant to this Court’s determination of whether the Defendant is immune from this lawsuit because the Plaintiffs have cited no authority, and I’m not aware of any authority, for the proposition that the impropriety of such a request by the Mexican government would be sufficient justification for a court to disregard our own State Department’s Suggestion of Immunity.”
The U.S. case should also be over. Any appeal by the plaintiffs, in my judgment, would be fruitless.
The U.S. case was brought by ten anonymous Mexicans alleging that Mr. Zedillo had been complicit in a a 1997 massacre in the Mexican village of Acteal in the southern state of Chiapas.