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Court dismisses suit over unethical US experiments

Guatemalan subjects of US medical experiments

A US court has dismissed a lawsuit by Guatemalan citizens against US officials in connection with unethical medical experiments conducted by American researchers in the 1940s. Lawyers representing the plaintiffs vowed to appeal the 14 June decision.

The semi-secret research project, which Nature reported on in “Human experiments: First, do harm”, involved a group of US medical researchers who established a lab in Guatemala to study treatments for syphilis, gonorrhoea and other diseases. They experimented on more than 5,000 Guatemalans — including military personnel, residents of mental hospitals and prisoners — without their consent and exposed at least 1,300 to sexually transmitted diseases. After details of the experiments emerged in 2010, President Barack Obama apologized to Guatemala and launched an investigation by the presidential bioethics commission, which issued a series of reports condemning the experiments.

In the court case, Guatemalans who contend that they were victims of the medical experiments (or their legal heirs) sued eight US federal officials. On Wednesday, Judge Reggie B. Walton ruled in favour of the US government, which argued that it was immune in this case. In his decision, Walton said, “This court is powerless to provide any redress to the plaintiffs. Their pleas are more appropriately directed to the political branches of our government, who, if they choose, have the ability to grant some modicum of relief to those affected by the Guatemalan study.”

Terrence Collingsworth, a lawyer representing the Guatemalan plaintiffs, said in a statement: “We are disappointed by the decision and strongly disagree that these doctrines of immunity apply under the extreme circumstances of this case. We plan to appeal and will continue to seek justice for the victims of these atrocious human rights violations committed by the US Government.”


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