On Friday, the President of Bolivia, Evo Morales, announced that the U.S. government was refusing to extradite former President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, who is facing formal charges of genocide.
"A document arrived from the United States, rejecting the extradition of people who have done a lot of damage to Bolivia," announced Morales, who called the U.S. a "refuge for criminals."
The controversy dates back to October 2003 when Sanchez de Lozada sent his military forces to quell protests against his government, resulting in the deaths of 67 men, women, and children, mostly from the impoverished indigenous Aymara community. Sanchez de Lozada eventually fled his country and sought refuge in the U.S. In 2007, Bolivian prosecutors brought charges against him.
The move has prompted some harsh criticism from critics of U.S. policy. Writing in the Guardian, Glenn Greenwald calls this "a classic and common case of the US exploiting pretenses of law and justice to protect its own leaders and those of its key allies from the rule of law, even when faced with allegations of the most egregious wrongdoing. If the Obama DOJ so aggressively shielded accused Bush war criminals from all forms of accountability, it is hardly surprising that it does the same for loyal US puppets. That a government that defies US dictates is thwarted and angered in the process is just an added bonus. That, too, is par for the course."
So what's going on? Why wouldn't the U.S. cooperate with this request?
On Friday, U.S. State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell was asked about this, and he said "we reiterate our expressions of sympathy to the victims and their families who lost their lives or were injured in the civil unrest surrounding the protests of October 2003. But as a matter of longstanding policy, we don't comment on specific extradition requests, so I simply can't get into that."
Trying to shed some light on what's going on behind the Obama administration denial of the request, ABC News granted anonymity to a source familiar with the matter to give some perspective. The source said there were serious technical problems with the Bolivian extradition request.
"The former president is accused of genocide for ordering security forces to suppress some violent demonstrations where people were killed," the source recalled. "For extradition requests to be successful, there are two standards that must be met. One, the accused crime has to be a crime in both jurisdictions, and two, there has to be a reasonable belief that the individual committed the crime."
The Bolivian request failed to meet both of these requirements, the source said.
As a technical matter, the U.S. criminal code doesn't have the crime of "genocide," so an extradition request would need to accuse Sanchez de Lozada of murder or conspiracy to commit murder or some similar charge.
Moreover, the source said, "the accusation is of genocide but there was no proof presented" in the extradition request that Sanchez de Lozada knowingly ordered the killing of these individuals. Clearly the military forces were acting on his orders to suppress the demonstrations, but so far the U.S. has yet to see any evidence that Sanchez de Lozada ordered anyone killed.
"The was virtually no evidence presented in the petition," the source said, adding that the Bolivian government by reputation often sends "very defective requests" to the U.S. government, and suggesting that this may have been more of an attempt by the Bolivian president to get on his "anti-American soapbox" than anything else.