The plaintiffs in a case filed in the United States criticized former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo for claiming immunity as a former head of state in connection with the 1997 Acteal massacre in Chiapas state.

"As a private citizen without an official post in a government for more than 10 years, there is no legitimate purpose in his attempting to get immunity for his legal responsibility," attorney Roger Kobert, who represents the plaintiffs, told Efe.

Zedillo's attorneys asked the federal court hearing the case in Connecticut on Friday to throw out the lawsuit filed last year by about a dozen relatives of the massacre victims against the former president.

The defense team for Zedillo, who served as Mexico's president from 1994 to 2000, considers the allegations that he played a role in the massacre "unfounded" and "slanderous."

Zedillo has immunity from any lawsuit over incidents that occurred while he was president, defense attorneys contend.

The former president is "dodging responsibility for this great tragedy" and "hiding behind a legal technicality" instead of facing the plaintiffs, Kobert said.

The defense is "unduly" using the case as a platform for Zedillo to proclaim his innocence, a move that is "inappropriate" at this stage in the process, Kobert said.

The law firm of Rafferty, Kobert, Tenenholtz, Bounds & Hess filed suit on Sept. 19 in Connecticut against Zedillo, a Yale University faculty member.

On Dec. 22, 1997, a group of men toting assault rifles killed 45 unarmed Tzotzil Indians, including 15 children, as they were praying inside a church in Acteal, Chiapas state.

The massacre occurred during the period when the government was fighting the Zapatista National Liberation Army, or EZLN, guerrilla group.

Tzotzil Indians from the Tzajalum, Chimix and Quextic communities had gathered in Acteal after fleeing their homes due to violence between EZLN supporters and armed members of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which governed Mexico at the time.

The massacre led to the resignations of Government Secretary Emilio Chuayfett and Chiapas Gov. Julio Cesar Ruiz Ferro, both of whom were PRI members.

Some people considered Ruiz Ferro to be behind the massacre.

Many human rights groups labeled the massacre a "state crime" and accused Ruiz Ferro and Zedillo of being involved.

Zedillo was the last president from the PRI, which governed Mexico from 1929 to 2000.

The lawsuit accuses the former Mexican head of state of complicity with the slaughter and an ensuing cover-up organized with former Attorney General Jorge Madrazo Cuellar.

The lawsuit contends that the Zedillo administration abandoned talks with the Zapatistas - whose armed uprising lasted only about a week - in favor of a violent crackdown after a report from a U.S. bank cited instability in Chiapas as a negative factor for the Mexican economy.

Zedillo, according to the suit, conspired with Madrazo Cuellar to hide the president's connection with a covert operation involving the use of police, soldiers and civilian paramilitaries to crush the Zapatistas.

"Compelling evidence shows that the authorities facilitated the arming of paramilitaries who carried out the killings and failed to intervene as the savage attack continued for hours," Amnesty International said in a 1998 statement on Acteal.

The plaintiffs are seeking $50 million in damages. 

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