Mexican Court Invalidates Former Mexican President’s Claim of Immunity from Alien Tort Statute and Torture Victims Protection Act Case in U.S.

As a prior post reports, in September 2011, a group of Mexican nationals sued former Mexican President, Ernesto Zedillo, in federal court in Connecticut for his alleged complicity in a 1997 massacre in the Mexican village of Acteal. The complaint seeks $10 million in damages under the Alien Tort Statute and the Torture Victims Protection Act.

The U.S. Government on September 7, 2012, suggested that Former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo should be immune from this lawsuit and that the case should be dismissed. This was based upon a request for such immunity from the Mexican government.

Eighteen days later (September 25th), the U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut issued an Order To Show Cause requiring the plaintiffs by October 9th (later extended to October 16th) to show cause why the case should not be dismissed on the basis of former head-of state immunity. Simultaneously the court denied Zedillo’s dismissal motion as moot.

On October 16th the plaintiffs filed their Response to Order To Show Cause, Objection to the United States’ Suggestion of Immunity, and Motion To Stay Proceedings. It asserted, with supporting documents, the following:

• that on October 3rd they filed a petition for a writ of amparo in a Mexican federal court asking for a declaration that the Mexican Government’s request for immunity for Zedillo in this case violated Mexican law and the Mexican constitution and, therefore, is a nullity;

• that on October 9th the Mexican court “accepted” the petition, i.e., determined it was not dismissable; and

• that on October 9th the Mexican court also entered another order temporarily suspending the validity of the Mexican Government’s request for immunity for Zedillo in the U.S. case and enjoining any acts in furtherance of that request pending resolution of the Mexican case.

With this showing, the plaintiffs asked the U.S. court (a) to stay proceedings in this case pending the outcome of the Mexican case; or (b) to dismiss the U.S. case without prejudice while tolling the statute of limitations with leave to re-file the U.S. case if they succeed in the Mexican case; and (c) to request the U.S. Department of State to reconsider its position on immunity after the Mexican case is resolved; and (d) to provide guidance as to plaintiffs’ right to amend their complaint or to petition for leave to do so.

As of March 10, 2013, the U.S. case had been reassigned to another District Judge, and the dispute over the claimed immunity had not been resolved by the U.S. court.

On the afternoon of March 10th while walking in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, I saw the page 1 headline in an issue of LaJournada, a Mexican newspaper: “Inconstitucional, pedir inmunidad para Zedillo en EU.”  Even my limited Spanish language abilities told me that a Mexican court had decided that the Mexican government’s request for immunity for Zedillo in this U.S. case violated the Mexican constitution.

According to a Google English translation of the article on the Internet, a Mexican judge had determined that Mexican authorities had violated the Mexican Constitution and international human rights treaties by asking the U.S. government to grant immunity to former President Zedillo.

One of the treaties was the Havana Convention, which states that “no immunities must be claimed that are not essential to the performance of official duties,” and it was violated, the court said, because Zedillo does not currently occupy any public position in the Mexican government. The American Convention on Human Rights was also violated, according to the Mexican court, because immunity for Zedillo causes “undue discrimination and threatening the human right of equality” for those who allegedly were harmed.

I imagine that there will be appeals or further proceedings in the Mexican case. In the meantime, I predict that the U.s. court will do nothing until the Mexican case is finally resolved.

Cuban Blogger Obtains Cuban Passport and Plans Trip to Latin America, North America and Europe


From her home in Havana, Cuba, Yoani Sanchez has been courageously blogging her critical comments on many aspects of life in her country as noted in a prior post.

In January 2013, under Cuban’s new law granting Cubans increased ability to obtain passports, she received her Cuban passport. She was overjoyed by this development after she had been denied a passport 20 times over the last five years.

Upon receiving the great news that she would obtain a passport, she bravely said in her blog:

  • She intends to “continue ‘pushing the limits’ of reform, to experience first hand how far the willingness to change really goes. To transcend national frontiers I will make no concessions. If the Yoani Sánchez that I am cannot travel, I am not going to metamorphose myself into someone else to do it. Nor, once abroad, will I disguise my opinions so they will let me ‘leave again’ or to please certain ears, nor will I take refuge in silence about that for which they can refuse to let me return. I will say what I think of my country and of the absence of freedoms we Cubans suffer. No passport will function as a gag for me, no trip as bait.”
  • “These particulars clarified, I am preparing the itinerary for my stay outside of Cuba. I hope to be able to participate in numerous events that will help me grow professionally and civically, to answer questions, to clarify details of the smear campaigns that have been launched against me… and in my absence. I will visit those places that once invited me, when the will of a few wouldn’t let me come; I will navigate the Internet like one obsessed, and once again climb mountains I haven’t seen for nearly ten years. But what I am most passionate about is that I am going to meet many of you, my readers. I have the first symptoms of this anxiety; the butterflies in my stomach provoked by the proximity of the unknown, and the waking up in the middle of the night asking myself, what will you look like, sound like? And me? Will I be as you imagine me?”

On February 17th she plans a worldwide tour visiting Latin American (Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Peru, Colombia and Mexico), North America (U.S. and Canada) and Europe (Italy, Czech Republic, Poland, Switzerland and Germany).

I pray that there will not be any last minute move by the Cuban government to block her leaving the island. I look forward to her comments on Cuba during her visits to these countries.

Yoani, congratulations and God Speed on your journey!

The U.S. State Department Suggests Former President of Mexico Is Immune from Suit in U.S. Federal Court for Alleged Human Rights Violations

Ernesto Zedillo

On September 16, 2001, ten anonymous Mexican nationals sued Ernesto Zedillo, the former President of Mexico, in U.S. federal court in New Haven, Connecticut. The complaint asserted claims for money damages in excess of $10 million under the Alien Tort Statute (ATS) and the Torture Victims Protection Act (TVPA) over the December 22, 1997, Mexican militia’s attack on civilians in the village of Acteal in Chiapas, Mexico. On January 6, 2012, Zedillo moved to dismiss the complaint on the ground that as a former Mexican president, he was immune from the lawsuit. All of this was explained in a prior post and a January 10th comment thereto.

Not much happened in this lawsuit until September 7, 2012, when the U.S. Government filed its suggestion that Zedillo should be immune from the suit and the case be dismissed. The Government did so in a letter from Harold Koh, the Department of State’s Legal Advisor and a former Dean of the Yale Law School, to the U.S. Department of Justice and in a formal pleading in the lawsuit entitled “Suggestion of Immunity Submitted by the United States of America.”

The letter stated that the U.S. State Department had determined that Zedillo was immune from the suit. It did so after “[t]aking into account 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.].”

The letter and the formal filing set forth the following principles of the common law of officials immunity:

  • 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.”

Here, the Mexican government had asserted that Zedillo’s actions that are challenged in this lawsuit were taken in his official capacity as President of Mexico. Indeed, according to the letter, this assessment of Zedillo’s actions is confirmed by the allegations of the complaint.

The letter’s reasons and conclusion are endorsed by the Suggestion of Immunity Submitted by the United States of America.

A Duke University Law Professor, Curtis A. Bradley, observed that the courts had the authority to make the ultimate decision on immunity for former officials and that the courts usually side with the State Department’s determination. This was certainly true in the ATS and TVPA case against a former Somali general as seen in a prior post.

I cannot see any legitimate basis for any challenge to this suggestion of immunity and anticipate that the District Court will conclude that Zedillo is immune and dismiss the case.


Former President of Mexico Is Sued in U.S. Federal Court for Alleged Human Rights Violations

Ernesto Zedillo

On September 16, 2011, ten anonymous Mexican nationals sued Ernesto Zedillo, the former President of Mexico, in U.S. federal court in New Haven, Connecticut.[1]

The complaint asserts claims for money damages in excess of $10 million under the Alien Tort Statute (ATS) and the Torture Victims Protection Act (TVPA).[2] The ATS allows claims by “an alien for a tort only, committed in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States.”[3] The TVPA allows claims by an “individual’s legal representative” who has been subject to “extra judicial killing” against an “individual [acting] under actual or apparent authority, or color of law, of any foreign nation” who commits the extra-judicial killing.[4]

Acteal Massacre bodies
Acteal Massacre Caskets

The case centers on a Mexican militia’s December 22, 1997, attack on civilians in the village of Acteal in Chiapas, Mexico.  At the time some of the villagers were troubled by the fighting in their area involving an indigenous insurgent group, the Zapatistas, and had formed a pacifist group known as “Las Abejas” or “The Bees.” On December 21st they started a retreat in and around their local church to pray and fast in the name of peace. On the second day of the retreat an anti-Zapatista militia armed with assault rifles surrounded the church and opened fire, killing 45 and wounding 17.[5]

Zedillo, shortly after his election as President in 1994, allegedly decided to break a ceasefire with the Zapatistas and instituted a plan know as “Plan de Campana Chiapas ’94,” which involved arming and training local militia groups. In addition, the Mexican military and Zedillo allegedly were involved or at least aware of the Acteal attack. Afterwards, Zedillo and his administration allegedly were actively engaged in trying to cover up the Mexican government’s involvement in the massacre. This cover-up included charging and convicting innocent people of the crime, as was confirmed in 2009 by the Mexican Supreme Court when it overturned 20 of the 37 convictions on the grounds that the prosecution had fabricated testimonies and tampered with evidence. [6]

Zedillo has not yet responded to the complaint, but immediately after the suit was commenced he said the accusations were “infamous and irresponsible” and “totally groundless and obviously false.” He had similar dismissive comments in 2005 about a complaint about the Acteal massacre that had been filed against Mexico in the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.[7] In 2010, by the way, the Commission decided that the complaint was admissible, i.e., subject to further proceedings, on most of Mexico’s alleged violations of the American Convention on Human Rights with respect to this incident.[8]

The Connecticut lawsuit was filed over six years after the expiration of the 10-year statute of limitations for suits under the ATS and the TVPA. However, under certain circumstances this limitations period can be suspended or tolled. Thus, we can anticipate that Zedillo will raise this affirmative defense. Indeed, the plaintiffs’ complaint anticipates this defense by alleging that the statute of limitations should be suspended or tolled because of the alleged cover-up of governmental involvement in the massacre that was not revealed until the Mexican Supreme Court’s August 12, 2009, reversal of 20 convictions for the reasons previously stated and because of the government’s intimidation of members of the Chiapas indigenous community.[9]

Another affirmative defense that can be anticipated is the plaintiffs’ alleged failure to exhaust “adequate and available remedies in the place in which the conduct giving rise to the claim occurred [here, Mexico].” Again the complaint anticipates this defense with allegations of absence of adequate legal remedies in Mexico and of their exhaustion of the available remedies.[10]

By January 6, 2012, Zedillo is to file his motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction that will include a request for the court to ask the U.S. government for its opinion as to whether Zedillo has immunity as a former head of a sovereign state.[11]

Since 2002 Zedillo has been the Director of the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization and is believed to live in the New Haven, Connecticut area.[12]

[1] Henderson & Stephenson, Zedillo accused of massacre cover-up, Yale Daily News (Sept. 21, 2011); Navarro, Zedillo faces massacre claims in U.S., Guardian (Dec.27, 2011); Civil Docket Sheets, Doe v. Zedillo, Case No. 3-11-cv-01433-AWT (D. Conn. as of Dec. 28, 2011); 1997 Acteal Massacre, It is surprising that there has been no mention of this case in the New York Times or Washington Post.

[2]  Id.

[3]  See Post: The Alien Tort Statute, 1789-1980 (Oct. 21, 2011); Post: U.S. Circuit Court’s 1980 Decision Validates Use of Alien Tort Statute To Hold Foreign Human Rights Violators Accountable (Oct. 23, 2011); Poat: The Alien Tort Statute, 1980-2004 (Oct. 25, 2011); Post: Alien Tort Statute Interpreted by U.S. Supreme Court in 2004 (Nov. 9, 2011); Post: The Alien Tort Statute, 2004-Present  (Nov. 14, 2011).

[4]  Post: The Torture Victims Protection Act (Dec. 10, 2011).

[5] See n.1 supra. The “Las Abejas” or “The Bees” have said that the plaintiffs are not members of their group and that their group is not interested in obtaining money for the massacre. (Stephenson, Plaintiffs in Zedillo case questioned, Yale Daily News (Oct. 5, 2011); Stephenson, Zedillo lawsuit lacks clear backers, Yale Daily News (Oct. 19, 2011).)

[6]  See n.1 supra.

[7]  Id.; Post, Zedillo says allegations are untrue, Yale Daily News (Feb. 14, 2005).

[8]  Manuel Santiz Culebra, et al. (Acteal Massacre), Rep. No. 146/10 (IACHR Nov. 1, 2010).

[9]  Complaint ¶¶ 120-133. See 28 U.S.C. § 1350, note §2(c ). See Post: Litigation Against Conspirators in the Assassination of Oscar Romero (Oct. 10, 2011); Post: Former Salvadoran Generals Held Liable for $54.6 Million for Failure To Stop Torture (Nov. 11, 2011); Post: Former Salvadoran Vice-Minister of Defense Held Liable for $6 Million for Torture and Extrajudicial Killing (Nov. 13, 2011); Post: The Torture Victims Protection Act (Dec. 10, 2011).

[10] Complaint ¶¶ 234-238.. See 28 U.S.C. § 1350, note §2(b). See posts in n.9 supra.

[11]  Scheduling Order, Doe v. Zedillo (Dec. 6, 2011). Within 30 days after the court dockets the U.S. government’s substantive response to such a request, the plaintiffs shall file their response to the dismissal motion. Within another 30 days after the plaintiffs’ response, Zedillo shall file his reply brief. (Id.) After all of these papers have been submitted, presumably the court will schedule a hearing on the dismissal motion and sometime thereafter issue the court’s decision on that motion.

[12] Ernesto Zedillo Biography,;Lee, Zedillo takes globalization center post, Yale Daily News (April 5, 2002).

My First Ten Years of Retirement

It is hard to believe that the 10th anniversary of my retirement from the practice of law is nearly here. I have no regrets. I made the correct decision. Here is my own grading of how I have met my retirement goals that I set 10 years ago.[1]

Being a good Grandfather. I now have four grandchildren, two in Minnesota and two in Ecuador. My wife and I obviously spend more time with the Minnesota kids, and our Ecuadorian grandson spent last Fall in Minnesota going to school with his cousins. We also frequently have traveled to Ecuador to see our family there although we have decided not to spend significant amounts of time there. I recently took my 10-year old Minnesota grandson to visit two federal judges and some friends at my former law firm and to observe parts of a trial and a court hearing.[2] I leave it to the grandkids to judge me on this goal, but I think I have done a pretty good job. I know I enjoy being a grandfather.

Being a good Father and Husband. I also have been making an effort to be a good father and husband. I am still working at it.

Learning Spanish. I have not taken the time to improve my very limited Spanish ability. I still wish that I were fluent in that language, but do not see myself taking the time to do this. Sorry.

Law Teaching. I had a goal of teaching law in Ecuador. I was interviewed by a university in Quito about teaching law in the English language, but I was not offered a position. My son who lives there went to the interview with me in case I needed an interpreter, and afterwards he said he thought that my positive comments about liberation theology may not have been appreciated by the university officials. In retrospect, I am not unhappy with this result. I would have had to work very hard to organize and teach one or more courses in this foreign country.

Moreover, this development opened the door for my having the opportunity to co-teach one course (international human rights law) at the University of Minnesota Law School for nine years (2002-10). This built on my experience as a federal court litigator and as a pro bono asylum lawyer. It also allowed me to work with, and become friends of, other professors at the Law School and many U.S. and foreign students. One of the foreign students was a Hubert Humphrey Fellow from Brazil who was a Professor of Law and Criminology at the Catholic university in Rio de Janeiro, and at her subsequent invitation, I presented a paper on the Truth Commission for El Salvador at a conference in Rio in 2009. In addition, through my work at the University of Minnesota I developed a strong interest in, and some expertise about, the International Criminal Court, and I have made many presentations about the ICC and have served as the Provisional Organizer for the Minnesota Alliance for the ICC.[3]

I recently decided that I would retire from this teaching job even though I have thoroughly enjoyed it. I wanted to have more time for writing as discussed below.

Human rights legal work. Without the support of a law firm, including its professional liability insurance, I decided I was not able to do pro bono legal work in retirement. But as mentioned above, I have been able to teach human rights and learn more about the subject myself. I also have developed an interest in the ICC and found a way to make use of that interest.

News “distributor.” Although not one of my goals from 2001, I have developed a practice in retirement of regularly reading many news sources online (New York Times, Washington Post, Huffington Post (Politics page), Wall Street Journal, Guardian (from the U.K.) and Granma (English translation of Cuba’s major national newspaper) and occasionally others (New York Review of Books, Atlantic and Harpers). After doing this for a while, I started sending by email interesting articles on human rights, the ICC, immigration, Cuba and Africa to friends who were interested in these subjects.

Arbitrator. Another retirement activity I had not anticipated in 2001 was being an arbitrator. But I have done so for disputes between investors and financial firms through the Financial Institutions Regulatory Authority (FINRA; f/k/a National Association of Securities Dealers), usually as chair of a panel of three arbitrators, and I have enjoyed this challenge. I try to act like the arbitrators and judges I respected in my practice: fair, impartial, respectful of the law, organized, decisive and clear (unlike some of the judges on the TV show “The Good Wife”).

Recently, however, I decided that I no longer wanted to spend my time working on other people’s problems and will not take any more cases. Sounds like my 2001 decision to retire from practicing law.

Obituary writer. Yet another surprising development over the last half-year has been being an obituary writer. As a member of my Grinnell College class’ 50th reunion committee, I have been responsible for writing or commissioning obituaries for our 53 deceased classmates. This used my factual research and writing skills from lawyering. I also came to see this activity in some cases as one of pastoral care for the families of the departed.

International travel. In addition to many trips to Ecuador and my trip to Brazil, my wife and I have been on many other fascinating international trips in the last 10 years. They include an Elder Hostel trip about Mozart to the Czech Republic and Austria, Turkey, Spain, England and Scotland, South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Canada, Mexico, El Salvador and Peru plus my church mission trips to Cuba and Cameroon. These were great, educational experiences.  I was really glad that I was in good health to be able to take these trips. I also have been able to chair a committee that supervises the global partnerships of Westminster Presbyterian Church.

Historical research and writing. I wanted to conclude my research about Joseph Welch and Edward Burling and write articles about them. I have done so, as was mentioned in a prior post.[4] I will share some of the key points of that research in future posts. On the other hand, I have not yet been able to do additional research on two of my ancestors, but it is still a goal.

Personal journal and memoirs. I have not been able to make much progress on the goal of writing a personal journal and memoirs. I was hung up on the issue of how do I organize or structure such a writing project. Recently, however, I started this blog and have found it a great way to do the writing that I wanted to do. I do not have to worry about how I might organize all of these thoughts. It is really exciting to be able to write this blog.

Physical exercise. I have been more diligent in my personal exercise program although I should be doing more.

Financial planning and management. With the assistance of an able investment professional, I have developed appropriate methods for financial planning and management for retirement. Like nearly everyone else, we suffered financially in the recent deep recession, but we have made progress since then. I know that I am fortunate when I read articles about the many people who have not saved enough for retirement or who lost their pensions or retirement savings in the recent deep recession or through collapse of their former employers or financial fraud or who struggle to survive with investments in bank CD’s or federal securities that now pay virtually nothing in interest.

In short, I am happy with my efforts to meet my retirement goals over the last 10 years. Now I need to continue my pursuit of these now modified goals during the next phase of my life.

[1] Post: Retiring from Lawyering (4/22/11).

[2] This trip to the federal courthouse and my former law firm was inspired, in part, by recent comments of Mary Robinson, the former U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights. Post: Tip for Grandparents (4/11/11).

[3] The Minnesota Alliance is part of the American NGO Coalition for the International Criminal Court or AMICC,

[4] Post: Adventures of a History Detective (4/5/11).