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Federal Court recognizes “despicable” US experiment infecting innocent Guatemalan people with syphilis violates international law

“The decision is significant not only because it gives lawyers a path — and directions — to refile a complaint, but because it acknowledges wrongdoing and says the court would have jurisdiction to hear a claim if it were presented in enough detail, said Robert García, a human rights lawyer with The City Project in Los Angeles. ‘That’s hugely important for the judge to acknowledge and I think it provides a great deal of hope and inspiration for the attorneys and the victims,’ said García, who is among the lawyers representing the Archdiocese of Guatemala in a petition to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights related to the experiments.”

A federal judge in Baltimore dismissed a $1 billion lawsuit against the Johns Hopkins University and others involved in a 1940s government experiment that infected hundreds of Guatemalans with syphilis and other venereal diseases, but offered the victims’ lawyers instructions — and a deadline — to refile the case.

U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis said the suit, filed on behalf of 842 victims and their family members, did not include enough detail about their claims. Citing the “despicable nature” of the study, Garbis said lawyers could file an amended complaint including more specifics about how and when victims were infected. The amended complaint is due Oct. 14.

“There is no doubt that at least some of the Plaintiffs suffered injury from the Guatemala Study,” Garbis wrote.

Paul Bekman, the victims’ attorney, pledged to continue pursuing the case.

Sarah Gantz, Judge dismisses $1 billion Guatemalan syphilis experiment case against Hopkins, others, The Baltimore Sun, Sept. 9, 2016. Hopkins, Rockefeller, and Bristol-Myers Squibb deny responsibility for these human rights violations.

The Court has jurisdiction to hear a well-pled case because non-consensual human medical experiments violate customary international law. “This Court finds, as stated by the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in Abdullahi v. Pfizer, Inc.: ‘[Plaintiffs] have pled facts sufficient to state a cause of action under the ATS for a violation of the norm of customary international law prohibiting medical experimentation on human subjects without their consent. In such an instance, ATS jurisdiction exists over plaintiffs’ claims.'” (ATS refers to the Alien Tort Statute.) The prohibition against nonconsensual human medical experiments is specific, universal, and obligatory among nations around the world. The prohibition is based in part on the Nuremberg Code that the US used to convict, jail, and execute Nazi doctors – while the US was conducting these very experiments in Guatemala. Read Judge Garbis’s decision in Alvarez v Johns Hopkins University.

Indeed, the underlying actions by the governments of the US and Guatemala are not in dispute. Both governments agree the experiments were unethical, at a minimum. The Guatemala government reports that the experiments violated international law. The US presidential report is silent on the law. That silence is a deafening tacit admission by the US.

Congressman Raúl Grijalva has courageously called for justice for the Guatemalan victims: “We must find the public and political will needed to seek out every Guatemalan family that has been impacted by this horrible experiment and ensure they are treated and compensated.”

The US District Court for the District of Columbia in a suit against the US recognized that “the Guatemala Study is a deeply troubling chapter in our Nation’s history,” and that “the political branches of our government . . . have the ability to grant some modicum of relief to those affected by the Guatemala Study.” Garcia Gudiel v Sebelius.

Indeed, the US and Guatemala do not dispute the facts of the experiments. Both governments concede the experiments were unethical, at a minimum. The Guatemala government acknowledges that the experiments violated international law. The US presidential report is silent on the law. That silence is a deafening tacit admission by the US of the illegality.

“President Barack Obama and Secretary Hillary Clinton have ‘apologized’ to Guatemala for these crimes against humanity while leaving the victims, many of them indigent Mayan people, untreated and uncompensated to the present day. Truth, reconciliation, and restorative justice require more than hollow apologies,” according to attorney García.

The Archdiocese of Guatemala Office of Human Rights filed its petition against the US and Guatemala before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, represented by The City Project, UC Irvine International Human Rights Clinic, Paul Hoffman, Catherine Sweetser, and Hannah Robinson.

Chichicastengo, Guatemala, is over 98% indigenous Mayan K’iche as of 2012.