Seeking justice for victims across borders
The nonprofit group CJA tracks down those who commit crimes in one country and flee to another – and hauls them into court.
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In a 2008 result in Florida, the CJA won a $37 million judgment against a former army officer in Peru who led a 1985 massacre of villagers high in the Andes Mountains. The incident was one of the worst in the conflict between Peru and the Shining Path insurgents. The CJA’s clients, two women, then 12 years old, watched the officer and his men shoot their families and burn them alive. As many as 69 people were killed in what became known as the Accomarca Massacre.Skip to next paragraph
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The Peruvian officer, Telmo Hurtado Hurtado, never paid for his acts. He was charged with making false statements and abuse of authority. But a 1995 amnesty law passed by then President Alberto Fujimori invalidated Hurtado’s sentence and protected him from additional prosecution. Later, many of the 20-year conflict’s atrocities were publicized by a truth and reconciliation commission, and the Peruvian government nullified the amnesty in 2002. Hurtado fled to the US.
“The Truth Commission was unique in that it did not recommend amnesty for perpetrators of abuses. In theory, then, [the commission] should have opened up a steady stream of criminal investigations and trials of human rights violators,” says Miguel La Serna, a professor of history at the University of North Carolina. “In practice, however, only a small percentage of these perpetrators – many with close ties to the government and security forces – have actually been brought to justice.”
The CJA based its case against Mr. Hurtado on the Alien Tort Statute [AST], which allows the US federal courts to hear lawsuits filed by foreign nationals for torts committed in violation of international law.
“ATS litigation can be a great measure of last resort when there are no other legal options available to the victim,” says Mark Drumbl, a law professor at Washington and Lee University School of Law.
In another victory, the US government extradited Hurtado to Peru in July to face additional charges related to the massacre.
“A big part of what we try to do is to ensure that these people are held accountable in their home country,” Merchant says.
But the significance of US civil judgments can be limited by larger political contexts in the victim’s home country.
“Law only gets you so far in preventing human rights abuses,” Professor Drumbl says. “One critique I would make of groups involved in ATS litigation for such abuses is that [the work] doesn’t necessarily make for effective political transition.”
In 1980, Cecilia Moran, then a 27-year-old government statistician, was jailed and brutally tortured by the national police in El Salvador. She was charged with being a “subversive” and held until 1983, despite never once being allowed to speak to an attorney.
In 2005, Ms. Moran was a plaintiff along with four others in a Memphis, Tenn., case brought by the CJA against Nicolas Carranza, who as El Salvador’s vice minister of defense in 1980 was responsible for the national police. Mr. Carranza was found responsible for $6 million in damages.
He appealed, arguing that he was protected by a 1993 Salvadoran amnesty law passed to protect those involved in abuses during the war. The appeal was rejected.
“When CJA came to me about the case, I told them I would like to participate, because it was important that the rest of the world knew who he was and what he did,” Moran says. “I was so satisfied when I heard it said in a court of law that he was responsible.”
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