Mexican court rules Zedillo ineligible for immunity

Former Mexican President and Yale professor Ernesto Zedillo GRD ’81 has been accused of cover- ing up a December 1997 massacre of 45 civilians in the village of Acteal, Mexico.
Former Mexican President and Yale professor Ernesto Zedillo GRD ’81 has been accused of cover- ing up a December 1997 massacre of 45 civilians in the village of Acteal, Mexico. Photo by Maria Zepeda.

A recent ruling by a Mexican court declared that former Mexican President and Yale professor Ernesto Zedillo GRD ’81 — who was accused of committing war crimes during his presidency but was granted a suggestion of immunity in a Connecticut suit by the State Department last year — is not eligible for immunity protection under the Mexican Constitution.

In the March 6 ruling, the court also invalidated a letter from the former Mexican Ambassador to the United States Arturo Sarukhan to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton LAW ’73 requesting immunity for Zedillo, claiming that the letter did not satisfy several conditions essential to its validity under Mexican law:  it lacked Sarukhan’s signature and the authorization of his superiors in the Mexican foreign relations department. Experts interviewed said the Mexican court’s ruling might affect the U.S. suit against Zedillo, as the State Department relied on the letter in formulating its suggestion of immunity.

The Hartford federal court, which has jurisdiction over the case because Zedillo is a resident of Connecticut, has not yet ruled on Zedillo’s request for immunity.

“Whether [Zedillo] is entitled to immunity under Mexican law is a separate question from whether he should receive immunity in a foreign court, including in a U.S. court,” said Curtis Bradley, a law professor at Duke University School of Law. “The latter is governed in part by international law.”

Following the Mexican court’s ruling, the State Department has so far not rescinded its September 2012 suggestion that Zedillo should be granted immunity. In its original letter, the State Department said that Zedillo’s actions relating to the 1997 massacre in the Mexican village of Acteal were taken as part of his official duties as head of state.

Zedillo declined to comment on the ruling and referred all questions to his lawyer, Jonathan Freiman LAW ’98.

Granting former heads of states immunity is a long-standing doctrine of U.S. and international law, Freiman said, adding that he thinks the recent ruling is irrelevant to the federal case in Hartford because under U.S. law, a federal court is required to follow a suggestion of immunity made by the State Department. He believes the Mexican court ruling will be appealed quickly and added that he expects the U.S. federal court to dismiss the $50 million suit.

Freiman said the Mexican court’s decision to invalidate Sarukhan’s letter does not introduce new information into the case as the plaintiffs had already argued the letter was invalid, and their argument was rejected before the State Department made the decision to grant Zedillo immunity.

But Roger Kobert, the plaintiffs’ attorney, said Freiman is “incorrect in stating that a U.S. court must blindly follow the State Department’s position, [and] the law actually says otherwise.” Kobert said that the recent ruling could render the State Department’s position “stale and ineffective” since the State Department might not have known that Sarukhan’s letter is invalid under Mexican law when making its decision.

In September 2011, 10 anonymous plaintiffs represented by the Miami, Fla., law firm Rafferty, Kobert, Tenenholtz, Bounds & Hess, P.A. accused Zedillo — who served as president of Mexico from 1994 to 2000 — of covering up a December 1997 massacre of 45 civilians in the village of Acteal, Mexico, where paramilitaries allegedly backed by the Mexican government attacked people attending a prayer meeting of Roman Catholic indigenous townspeople. Among the charges the lawsuit brings against Zedillo are war crimes, crimes against humanity, and cruel, inhumane and degrading punishment.

University spokesman Tom Conroy said Zedillo has been fully engaged as a Yale faculty member while defending himself in the lawsuit.

The case has been complicated by the fact that the plaintiffs’ identity and source of funding remain unclear, leading the Mexican press to speculate that the lawsuit might be politically motivated. Though Kobert said attorney-client privilege prevents him from disclosing the plaintiffs’ identity, he told the News in 2011 that his clients do not have the means to afford his firm’s services.

A statement from September 2011 posted on the blog of Las Abejas — a Mexican civil society whose membership included the 45 victims — says that “it is evident that neither Las Abejas nor any other Tzotzil indigenous person has the money to pay the enormous costs that such legal defense would imply.” Las Abejas, which has contested claims by the plaintiffs that they are a part of the organization, also speculated that the lawsuit, filed 14 years after the Acteal massacre, seeks to advance “political-election and economic purposes,” instead of the survivors’ interests. In a September 2012 piece, journalists at The Economist speculated that the administration prior to Zedillo’s might be behind the lawsuit.

“The plaintiffs have chosen to remain anonymous, even though the names of the real victims are well-known in Mexico and outside it,” Freiman told the News on Saturday, adding that survivors of the massacre other than the plaintiffs have attached names to a lawsuit recently introduced in Mexico.

The lawsuit against Zedillo, who directs the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization, teaches international economics and politics, and is a professor-adjunct of forestry and environmental studies, was filed on Sept. 19, 2011.

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