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Judge: Lawsuit Over Guatemala Syphilis Experiment to Proceed

FILE - Guatemala's then-President Alvaro Colom, Oct. 1, 2010, described as "crimes of lese-humanity" the study conducted by the United States more than 60 years ago in Guatemala in which researchers infected hundreds of people with syphilis and gonorrhea without their consent.

A U.S. federal judge in Maryland has ruled that pharmaceutical company Bristol-Myers Squibb, Johns Hopkins University and the Rockefeller Foundation must face a $1 billion lawsuit over their roles in a 1940s medical experiment that saw hundreds of Guatemalans infected with syphilis.

About 775 Guatemalan victims and relatives in 2015 launched a civil suit over the U.S.-led experiment, which aimed to find out if penicillin could be used to prevent sexually transmitted diseases.

They claimed the experiment “subjected them or their family members to medical experiments in Guatemala without their knowledge or consent during the 1940s and 1950s.”

Judge rules in Maryland

U.S. District Judge Theodore Chuang, in a decision Thursday, rejected arguments from the defense that a recent Supreme Court decision protecting foreign companies from U.S. lawsuits over human rights abuses abroad also applied to domestic firms.

The judge said allowing the case to move forward would “promote harmony” by giving the foreign plaintiffs the opportunity to seek justice in U.S. courts.

Experiments discovered

The unethical experiment was revealed by Dr. Susan Reverby, a professor at Wellesley College in the U.S.

She came across the work while researching notes left by John Charles Cutler, a public health services sexual disease specialist who headed up the experiment, following his death in 2003.

Cutler and his fellow researchers enrolled soldiers, mental patients, prostitutes, convicts and others in Guatemala for the study.

Former U.S. president Barack Obama apologized for the experiments in 2010, while his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described the experiments as “clearly unethical.”