State Dept. suggests immunity for Zedillo

The lawsuit facing professor Ernesto Zedillo GRD '81 came closer to being dismissed when the State Department proposed immunity for him over the weekend.
The lawsuit facing professor Ernesto Zedillo GRD '81 came closer to being dismissed when the State Department proposed immunity for him over the weekend. Photo by Grace Patuwo.

The case against Yale professor Ernesto Zedillo GRD ’81, a former Mexican president accused of committing war crimes and crimes against humanity, moved one step closer to dismissal following a State Department suggestion that he receive immunity.

The State Department argued for Zedillo’s immunity in a letter issued Friday, claiming his actions — connected to a 1997 massacre that occurred during his term — were taken as part of his official duties as a foreign head of state. If a federal judge defers to the State Department’s suggestion, which two scholars of legal immunity issues said is a likely outcome, Zedillo will see his case dismissed. While the courts have typically sided with State Department suggestions, the experts said the court’s actions are not governed by any federal statute — a fact they said reflects the politicization of law.

“Are we shocked that the U.S. government decided to take this position?” Roger Kobert, the plaintiffs’ lawyer, said. “No, we’re not shocked, but we’re very disappointed. We thought they’d do the right thing, but they chose not to do the right thing.”

The case began when 10 anonymous plaintiffs — represented by the Miami, Fla., law firm Rafferty, Kobert, Tenenholtz, Bounds & Hess, P.A. — alleged Zedillo worked to cover up a Dec. 22, 1997 attack on civilians in the village of Acteal, Mexico in which 45 indigenous villagers died.

Zedillo’s lawyer, Jonathan Freiman LAW ’98, motioned to dismiss the $50 million suit in January, claiming his client was immune from the suit as a former foreign head of state.

Freiman told the News on Sunday that he was pleased with the State Department’s suggestion, but wouldn’t speculate on what it means for the case.

“The accusations in lawsuit are not only false but calumnious,” Zedillo said in a Sunday email. “That is why I am glad that Jonathan’s strategy to get this libelous lawsuit dismissed is making progress.”

Kobert said he and the plaintiffs are weighing their options as they wait for the court’s ruling.

Ingrid Wuerth, a professor at Vanderbilt Law School who has written about immunity issues, said the courts have tended to side with State Department suggestions of immunity. She cautioned that such practices lend the government political power in altering the course of judicial proceedings.

“I think it’s an example of lawmaking by the executive branch,” Wuerth said. “The executive branch is acting as a lawmaker here and interfering in the court, saying that some claims can go forward and some can’t.”

The State Department often provides immunity recommendations to American courts for cases concerning foreign heads of state, though such cases are rare.

In a letter accompanying the State Department suggestion, State Department legal adviser Harold Koh, a former Yale Law School dean and current law professor, wrote that the suggestion took into account “the overall impact of [the case] on the foreign policy of the United States.” Koh could not be reached for comment Sunday.

But Curtis Bradley, a law professor at Duke University School of Law, said the State Department’s political interests in Zedillo’s case were secondary to the suggestion’s grounding in principles of international law. He said a federal court would have considered similar principles, and would thus likely have reached a comparable conclusion about Zedillo’s immunity even without the State Department recommendation.

Zedillo was the president of Mexico from 1994 to 2000.


  • The Anti-Yale

    “1997 massacre that occurred during his term — were taken as part of his official duties as a foreign head of state.”

    Sure. If Ohio National Guardsmen can get off scott free, why not heads of state?


    • River_Tam

      What do you know about Ohio National Guardsmen?

  • The Anti-Yale

    Are you BAITING me?


  • Chip_G

    Interesting how the accused war criminal, the accused war criminal’s lawyer, and the State Department official arguing for immunity for the accused war criminal are all some how associated with Yale (alums of one of it’s graduate programs, currently employed there, or a combination of the two).

    What a prestigious institution.

  • Bschiava1

    Dr. Zedillo can say that he is not guilty, but the evidence talks, and Dr. Zedillo instead of facing the charges decided to ask for immunity. This reinforces the public perception that he has something to hide. Dr. Zedillo can say that this was a calumny but he cannot prove otherwise because he decided not to fulfill his responsability as a public servant, to respond for the charges.

    Actually is Dr. Zedillo calling the US National Security archives and the documents of US officials also false? Also you can find there documents that clearly hightlight that his administration gave “direct” support to paramilitaries.

    Second. I am a Mexican American, but I studied medicine in Mexico City. I was studying medicine precisely when Dr. Zedillo was the President of Mexico. I remember very well the conflict and how his administration deported the international human rights organizations in the highlands of Chiapas, to continue combating not only the Zapatistas but also the indigenous communities. The military and the paramilitaries continue displacing the indigenous communities and commiting all source of human rights abuses that were recorded by human rights organizations like the Center Fray Bartolome de las Casas, Amnisty International etc.

    I rembember the Acteal massacre, the Charco massacre, and Aguas Blancas massacre during Dr. Zedillo’s administration. Is Dr. Zedillo calling me also a lier? Because this is public information. The Acteal massacre is not a new issue. This problem has followed him wherever he goes. By saying that these are calumnies, Dr. Zedillo is not going to rewrite the history.

    Human rights abuses, Fobaproa, a fund that made Mexican people pay with their pensions the debt of banks, was shameless! Mexicans still remember the Fobaproa. I remember the peso devaluation and the very repressive political regime during his administration. So how is that Dr. Zedillo, gives classes of economics in Yale when he left the Mexican people in worse economic situation than they were?

    I feel sad and dissapointed because the people killed won’t get justice. Unfortunately, those poor, without money and influences get the bragging, arrogant attitute of an Ex-Mexican President.

    Dr. Zedillo can say to his students whatever he wants, as for example, that those were lies, but those like me, who lived in Mexico, know better, and if you read the evidence, for example, Acteal, newspapers during his administration, and the US National Security Archive, you will judge with knowledge. Is everybody lying?

    Dr. Zedillo, as long as there is a Mexican, or a Mexican American like myself, we won’t let the history fall in oblivion. We will always rembember!

    Let’s see if in Yale there is freedom of expression and you guys leave here this message.