Response to the Bolivian Ex-President’s Defense Team’s Press Release

On August 30, immediately following the “Black October” verdict, convicting five military officials and two ex-ministers for 68 killings in October 2003, the defense team of ex-president Sánchez de Lozada, disseminated a press release claiming the  trial was politicized and the verdict invalid.  Sánchez de Lozada, along with three former ministers who are also defendants in the case, have avoided prosecuting by living in the United States.  The U.S. government has not responded to an extradition request filed by the Bolivian government almost three years ago.  AIN responds to inaccurate assertions in the press release[i] (in italics) below.

The trial that recently concluded against two former Ministers and the then Joint Chiefs of Staff of the Government of President Sánchez de Lozada demonstrates that the Bolivian justice system is highly politicized.  No objective observer could take the sentences announced by the Attorney General seriously.

  • International human rights organizations heralded the ruling.  These same respected organizations have also objectively criticized the Morales administration for leniency on military impunity and other human rights issues.
  • The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, praised the verdict: “I commend the Bolivian Supreme Court for its decision, which is an important step in the fight against impunity….A number of Latin American countries have been demonstrating to the rest of the world that it is possible not just to move from dictatorship to democracy, but also to bring justice – no matter how powerful or influential those responsible for human rights violations may be, and irrespective of their civilian or military status….Those who carry out torture, extrajudicial killings and other such crimes on other continents would do well to reflect on this very healthy and accelerating trend towards combatting long-standing impunity in Latin America.”[ii]
  • Denis Racicot, Representative for the UN High Commission on Human Rights in Bolivia commented: “”Those who were also responsible from the political point of view, particularly President Sanchez de Lozada and other ministers that are outside, should also face charges. ….The defense to ‘obey orders’ is not a defense as such.  I think that the president [Morales] has expressed a general opinion.  On the other hand, justice has shown its own independence in that sense.  Today, they have decided to declare responsible those who were under trial and also to sentence them…..if you consider they were illegal orders, you are not obligated to obey such an order in international law…..today maybe we have seen one of the best days of the Bolivian justice system.”[iii]
  • Amnesty International affirmed that “these convictions are an important victory for the families of those killed and injured who have waited nearly eight years to see justice delivered after the tragic events know as  ‘Black October.’…We hope that this ruling sets a positive precedent for the pursuit of lasting and impartial justice in other human rights cases in Bolivia.[iv]
  • Human Rights Watch had continuously advocated a fair trial in Black October, including the extradition of ex-President Sánchez de Lozada: “In November 2008 Bolivia’s government requested the extradition of former president Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada and two of his ministers to stand trial for killing at least 60 people in anti-government protests in September and October 2003, when the army used lethal force to quell violent demonstrations in the highland city of El Alto. As of November 2010 it has received no response from the United States government.”[v]

As just one example, in 2004, following a thorough investigation, independent prosecutors found no basis to bring charges.

  • During 2004 investigations, public prosecutors, who had been in close contact with international human rights monitors about significant evidence available to press charges, stated that they had closed the investigation because of repeated threats against them.[vi]

Nevertheless, Evo Morales, as a plaintiff pursued criminal charges against the Ministers.

  • Beyond public statements soon after his inauguration, the Morales administration has demonstrated little or no support for the process. For example, in August Morales affirmed, “Why would the ex-commanders be to blame for obeying political orders at some time; I salute the retired military.” [vii]
  • Morales only responded to the subpoena to testify in the case after four months and a Supreme Court order to do so.[viii]

  • Carlos Mesa, Sánchez de Lozada’s hand-picked vice president, withdrew his support for the president on October 13, 2003, explaining that, “If the government does not have the capacity to understand [the concept of] unconditioned dialogue, it will not be able to be a valid participant in the process to address popular demands I will not tolerate death as a response to popular protest.”[ix] Mesa promised full investigations and sanctions of those responsible for the deaths and injuries that took place during Black October when he became president after Sánchez de Lozada’s resignation.[x]
  • In fact, there was consensus across the political spectrum about the need for impartial investigations and prosecutions.  On October 14 2004, during Mesa’s, presidency, the Bolivian Congress authorized the trial of Sanchez de Lozada and his cabinet.  At this time, the majority of congress belonged to Sánchez Lozada’s own MNR party,[xi] or to allied parties. The present government’s MAS coalition, had about 20 percent of the congressional seats at the time.
  • Furthermore, Sanchez de Lozada himself signed the Trial of Responsibilities Act –  the legal foundation for the charges against him his former cabinet. –into legislation.  This law establishes that ministers, the president, and other high-ranking officials can be held accountable for crimes, including the Bolivian definition of genocide. [xii]
  • The Bolivian Supreme Court ratified the congressional decision to try Sanchez de Lozada as stipulated by Bolivian law.

Later, after he became president, Morales appointed the presiding judges rather than following a legal appointment process that would have required Congressional approval.

  • In 2007, the Bolivian Congress elected the two Supreme Court justices Ángel Irusta (president) and Hugo Suárez Calbimonte, who ruled on the case,  by a more than 2/3 majority vote, following the legal stipulations of the existing constitution,[xiii] which had been last modified during Sanchez de Lozada’s first term.[xiv] They were not part of the temporary February 2010 appointments to fill empty judicial positions until universal judicial elections on October 6, 2011.[xv]
  • In 2007, MAS had 84 of 157 seats (53%), which was not enough to push through judicial appointments with a 2/3 majority without other parties’ support.[xvi]
  • Morales had no role in the appointment of the five associate justices appointed to the Supreme Court, according to the stipulations of Bolivian law.[xvii] In fact, one associate justice, the brother of a military colonel, quit his post to work on of the defense team of the accused generals.

Plainly, the Bolivian judiciary was used here as a political tool.

  • All legislation used to authorize the trial and prosecute the defendants was passed long before Morales’ election.
  • Interim Attorney General Mario Uribe who served as chief prosecutor in the trial, was not a MAS appointment, and assumed the post after the resignation of his predecessor, because Bolivian law stipulates that the regional district attorney of Chuquisaca assume this post. MAS merely extended his tenure.[xviii] Furthermore, Uribe began working a state prosecutor in 1995, during Sánchez de Lozada’s first term.[xix]
  • Both special prosecutors assigned to the case are career prosecutors, originally selected in 2000 through a series of competency exams carried out by U.S. contractors as part of democracy promotion initiatives and received further U.S. funded training.

Former President Sánchez de Lozada was not a defendant in the trial.

  • Attorney General Pedro Gareca, unanimously elected in 2004 by the Bolivian Congress [xx], formally charged Sánchez de Lozada on February 1, 2007.[xxi] On November 11, 2008, The Bolivian Government formally requested his extradition from the United States, a decision ratified by the Supreme Court.[xxii]

  • Sánchez de Lozada did not return to Bolivia to assume his defense, a very different matter, and the U.S. government has not responded to the extradition request.   Legally, he cannot be tried in absentia according to Bolivian law and international law.

[i] Full text of the press release:  Statement by Ana Reyes, Counsel to former President Sánchez de Lozada of Bolivia
The trial that recently concluded against two former Ministers and the then Joint Chiefs of Staff of the Government of President Sánchez de Lozada demonstrates that the Bolivian justice system is highly politicized.  No objective observer could take the sentences announced by the Attorney General seriously.
As just one example, in 2004, following a thorough investigation, independent prosecutors found no basis to bring charges.  Nevertheless, Evo Morales, as a plaintiff pursued criminal charges against the Ministers.  Later, after he became president, Morales appointed the presiding judges rather than following a legal appointment process that would have required Congressional approval.  Plainly, the Bolivian judiciary was used here as a political tool.
Former President Sánchez de Lozada was not a defendant in the trial.

[ii] UNHCHR, Press Release: “UN human rights chief applauds convictions of ministers and military for serious crimes in Bolivia, cites ‘healthy trend’ in Latin America,” 2 Sept. 2011.

[iii] BBC World Service, “The World Today,” 31 August 2011.  Racicot responded to a question from BBC reporter Mattia Cabitza about how Morales had previously stated that the military should not be held responsible for following orders.

[iv] Amnesty International Press Release  “Amnesty International Applauds Conviction of Former Officials in Bolivia Massacre” 31 August 2011

[v] Human Rights Watch, “World Report 2011: Bolivia” 25 January 2011.  In the same report HRW criticizes the MAS administration: “Lack of accountability for rights abuses remains a serious problem in Bolivia…In 2010 officials of President Evo Morales’s government backed the military when it failed to comply with court orders to provide access to information.”

[vi] AIN interview with initial prosecutorial team, 14 June 2004, 5 Aug. 5, 2004

[vii] El Mundo “Evo Morales libera de culpa a los excomandantes de FF.AA. 8 Aug 2011.

[viii] Erbol, “Suprema conmina a Evo Morales a entregar su declaración sobre “octubre negro”’ 11 Feb 2011.

[ix] ,” El Diario “Carlos Mesa Gisbert: No tolero que muerte sea respuesta a las protestas populares,”14 Oct. 2003

[x] La Razón, “El debate sobre los conflictos está a punto de postergarse,”,20 Oct. 2003.

[xi] La Razón, “El congress autoriza el juicio a Goni y  al pleno de su gabinete,” 14 Oct, 2003.

[xii] Bolivian National Congress, “LEY Nro. 2445,” 14 March 2003.

ARTICULO 1. (Del ámbito de Aplicación y de los Delitos). Esta Ley establece la

sustanciación y resolución de los juicios de responsabilidades contra el Presidente de la República, Vicepresidente de la República, Ministros de Estado y Prefectos de

Departamento, por delitos cometidos en el ejercicio de sus Funciones. Serán enjuiciados cuando en el ejercicio de sus funciones cometan uno o más de los delitos que a continuación se mencionan. a) traición a la Patria  y sometimiento total o parcial de la nación al dominio extranjero, previstos en el art. 17 de la Constitución Política del Estado y tipificados por los Artículos 109 y 110 del Código Penal. b) Violación de los derechos y de las garantías individuales consagradas en la Primera Parte, título primero de la Constitución Política del Estado, Artículos 5, 6, 7, 9, 10, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 20, 21, 23, 26,  27,28, 29, 30 y 33 c) Uso indebido de influencias; d) Negociaciones incompatibles con el ejercicio de funciones públicas e) Dictar resoluciones contrarías a la Constitución f) Anticipación o prolongación de funciones; g) Delitos tipificados por los Arts. 146, 150, 151,

152,153 y 163 del Código Penal. h) Genocidio, tipificado por el Artículo 138 del Código Penal i) Soborno y Cohecho; j) Cualquier otro delito cometido en el ejercicio de sus funciones. Los prefectos de Departamento serán enjuiciados por los delitos mencionados en este artículo y por el delito de sedición, definido en el art,. 4 de la Constitución Política del Estado y tipificado por el Artículo 123 del Código Penal.

[xiii] GIZ/PADEP, “Nuevos magistrados de la Corte Suprema elegidos en proceso abierto por el Congreso,” 13 July 2007.

“El Congreso eligió ayer a cuatro magistrados para la Corte Suprema por dos tercios y más de los votos, luego de un largo proceso de selección que comenzó el 12 de mayo de este año con la presentación de 178 candidatos a los cuatro cargos que estaban acéfalos desde hace algunos años excepto algunos meses por el nombramiento interino por decreto del presidente Evo Morales.”

[xiv] Bolivian Supreme Court of Justice.

[xv] Andean Information Network, “Pending Bolivian Judicial Elections: Opportunity for Reform in Uncharted Territory,” 25 June 2011.

[xvi] National Electoral Court of Bolivia, see http://www.bolivia.com/noticias/autonoticias/DetalleNoticia30696.asp

[xvii] Government of Bolivia: Judicial Power, “LEY Nº 1455: LEY DE ORGANIZACIÓN JUDICIAL FEBRERO DE 1993,” CAPÍTULO VII: CONJUECES.
-ARTÍCULO 80. DESIGNACION.-
La Corte Suprema de Justicia designará a doce abogados en ejercicio en su última reunión, para que en la próxima gestión reemplacen a sus ministros cuando éstos estén impedidos y no hubiese el número suficiente para dictar resolución en un proceso y para dirimir los casos de disconformidad.

-ARTÍCULO 81. REQUISITOS PARA SU DESIGNACION.-
Para ser elegido conjuez de la Corte Suprema de Justicia, se requiere tener las mismas condiciones de elegibilidad que para ser ministro de ella.
-ARTÍCULO 82. RESPONSABILIDAD.-
Los conjueces se hallan sujetos a la misma responsabilidad que los ministros titulares en las causas en cuya resolución intervinieron.

[xviii] La Razón, “García notifica a Uribe para que continúe su interinato.” 27 Jan. 2010.

[xix] AIAMP, “Fiscal General de Bolivia.”

[xx] According to Mario Cossio, MNR (Sánchez de Lozada’s party) head of the lower house of Congress. You  are indebted to no one, Mr. Attorney General, because your appointment wasn’t a political favor from anyone.”Congreso asegura que no cobrará “factura” a Gareca.” El Diario, 17 Dec. 2004.

[xxi] Time, “Bolivia Calls Ex-President to Court,” 1 Feb 2007.

[xxii] The New York Times, “Bolivia: Ex-Leader Sought In ’03 Crackdown,” 12 Nov 2008.