Category Archives: Human Rights, Impunity

Pending Reform Agenda: Impunity in Human Rights Violations

Military Trials in Human Rights Cases: Illegal and Reinforce Impunity


Since 2001, high-profile human rights cases have been transferred to the Bolivian military tribunal, although the Bolivian constitution and law do not authorize military jurisdiction in human rights cases.Article 48 of the criminal procedures code states that:  "If there is doubt about the appropriate jurisdiction, as a result of concurrence or connection between special and civilian jurisdictions, the crimes should be addressed by the civilian jurisdiction."  In spite of repeated Supreme Court and other legal rulings, military personnel have consistently refused to cooperate in investigations carried out by the attorney general’s representatives in the region, asserting that they are only answerable to internal military investigations.  The military legal process does not provide for transparent court proceedings.  Furthermore, none of the cases that have gone to military tribunals has resulted in a conviction.Using the military tribunal for human rights cases is illegal due to the lack of third party monitoring, but this process is used to give officers quick acquittals and ensure impunity.

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On Community Justice

Though the report refers anecdotally to punishments of adulterers and others accused of violating local norms, the cases which it actually documents are all instances of lynching, in which an accused thief is apprehended and violently punished by an angry mob. Such events are not a product of the MAS’s rise to power, but have been frequent occurrences in Bolivia since at least 1995, when I began studying them in Cochabamba. Nor are lynchings examples of community justice. In its traditional form in indigenous Andean villages, community justice emphasizes reconciliation and rehabilitation. Rather than violent torture and execution, community justice promotes the “reeducation” of community members who violate collective norms and rules, and the reincorporation of these offenders back into the community. Typically, the last resort for this kind of community justice would be to exile offenders, prohibiting their return to the community where their family, lands, and all other signs of their social existence are located. Such punishment has a powerful deterrent effect on would-be criminals, such that extreme forms of violent punishment are rarely required. Punishments under this system are not decided upon in anger, but are the result of a deliberative process in which elected elders of the community participate and pronounce judgment.

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International Precedents in the Sánchez de Lozada Case

In addition, the Bolivian government is expected to present a formal extradition request to the U.S. State Department so that Sánchez de Lozada and two of his former ministers can stand trial in Bolivia.  (The United States and Bolivia signed an extradition treaty on June 27, 1995 which entered into force on November 21, 1996). In addition to the former president and ministers, six retired military commanders also face charges. The accused have sought to portray the Bolivian government’s charges against them as politically motivated. However, the Bolivian Congress authorized the courts to proceed with charges against the former president well before current president Evo Morales was elected. In Bolivia, trials for high-ranking government officials must be approved by a two-thirds vote in the Congress.  In Sánchez de Lozada’s case, congressional approval for a trial occurred during the presidency of Carlos Mesa, Sánchez de Lozada’s vice president and successor, and at a time when the majority of members in Congress belonged to Sánchez de Lozada’s party or  allied parties.

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Open Human Rights Investigations in Bolivia

Human rights trials in military courts violate Bolivian law and international accords

Since 2001, high-profile human rights cases have been transferred to the Bolivian military tribunal, although the Bolivian constitution and law do not authorize military jurisdiction in human rights cases.  Article 48 of the criminal procedures code states that:  “If there is doubt about the appropriate jurisdiction, as a result of concurrence or connection between special and civilian jurisdictions, the crimes should be addressed by the civilian jurisdiction.”

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US Civil Case Brought Against Bolivian Ex-President

Eleven reasons why the US civil court case makes sense:

1.     Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada and Carlos Sánchez Berzaín, have deftly crafted the misleading message that the criminal trial in Bolivia is a MAS political witch hunt, although the trial was actually approved by 2/3 of the Bolivian congress during the presidency of Sánchez de Lozada’s hand-picked vice president, Carlos Mesa.  Many members of Sanchez de Lozada’s own party and allies voted for the trial.

2.    As a result of this campaign they have effectively created the impression that the three men would not get a fair trial in Bolivia, a vision shared “off the record” by US government officials.  A civil trial in the US neatly sidesteps these accusations and is generally more appealing to US policymakers and public, which have more faith in the US justice system.
3.    The accused men have hired skilled US lawyers to defend them and help spin their message relatively successfully in meetings with institutions and US officials.  For example Sánchez de Lozada hired the same lawyer former President Clinton hired to defend him in the Monica Lewinsky case.  Bolivian prosecutors and consular officials previously have had difficulties confronting this strategy as they have less experience with the US judiciary and international law.
4.    Although they have avoided making public statements about the trial of responsibilities in Bolivia, the Bush administration has stalled the extradition process.  They failed to deliver the letters rogatory, to officially notify the accused of the impending trial in Bolivia, for over two years.
5.    Loopholes in the US-Bolivia extradition treaty, ironically signed during the first Sánchez de Lozada administration, such as a clause forbidding political charges and the possibility for the Department of Justice (where the letters rogatory languished) to send back the request repeatedly for correction, could bog down or impede the process.  Whereas a civil trial has the potential to move ahead without political impediments as well as garner more support for the extradition request.

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Amnesty International Alert: Threats Against Human Rights Lawyer

Adalberto Rojas and members of the APDH have been receiving threats and harassment since 2003 because of their legitimate work in defence of human rights of peasants, indigenous peoples and other members of the Santa Cruz de la Sierra community who face discrimination. In recent months, these threats have worsened as different groups in Santa Cruz Department struggle for power in the context of calls for regional autonomy. Adalberto Rojas and other members of the APDH have been accused of being traitors to the development of Santa Cruz de la Sierra.    

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The Leahy Amendment

The Leahy Amendment is a law passed in 1997 that prohibits U.S. funding of security forces whose members have been credibly implicated in human rights violations, stating:

None of the funds made available by this Act may be provided to any unit of the security forces of a foreign country if the Secretary of State has credible evidence that such unit has committed gross violations of human rights, unless the Secretary determines and reports to the Committees on Appropriations that the government of such country is taking effective measures to bring the responsible member of the security forces unit to justice.

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Family of “Black October” Prosecutor Threatened

Recent incidents

On October 20, six people, four of them hooded and armed, broke in to the home of Mendoza’s brother, Hugo. They gagged and tied up Mendoza’s sister-in-law and her two elderly uncles. The assailants stated that they planned to kill Hugo Mendoza and waited for him for three hours. When he did not arrive, they took the elderly men’s savings, around $11,700 dollars. Many older Bolivians mistrust the nation’s banking system and choose to keep their savings at home. Oddly, they did not take anything else from the house.

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Lessons from Bolivia’s “Black October” 2003

The events leading to Sánchez de Lozada’s (known as "Goni") resignation demonstrated a general disgust for traditional party politics and lack of accountability, and have helped to radically restructure the Bolivian political landscape. In spite of these transformations, fundamental changes still need to be made to ensure that government ordered violence and resulting human rights violations are not repeated.

"Black October" trial continues to face obstacles

Investigations of the killings have faced multiple impediments. The first prosecutorial team abruptly closed the investigation in June 2004. One member of the team told AIN, "We are under pressure and had no choice; it was the only way to keep the peace. We didn’t want to be responsible for further conflict." In November 2004, the Bolivian Congress authorized a "trial of responsibilities" against Sánchez de Lozada and his ex-ministers, but investigations lagged once again. In February 2005, newly appointed Attorney General Pedro Gareca mistakenly charged the ex-president with rape, by citing the wrong article of the criminal procedures code, further complicating the process. The designation of a third team of prosecutors provided greater continuity.

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Continued Impunity Could Aggravate Pending Political Conflict

Part One: 
Ex President Sánchez de Lozada and Others Avoid Prosecution in the United States

Over two years have passed since Bolivian security forces killed 59 and left over 200 people seriously injured during widespread demonstrations protesting the management of Bolivia’s gas reserves in September and October of 2003. As with other social conflicts in Bolivia, there have not been legal consequences for the human rights violations committed during the "Gas War." By the time President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada resigned, the armed forces and police had killed almost as many people during his fourteen-month presidency as during seven years of the Banzer dictatorship, considered one of Bolivia’s bloodiest military governments since the 1952 revolution.  The military’s systematic refusal to cooperate in a meaningful way with investigations – although ordered to do so by the Bolivian Supreme court – and the delay of the U.S. government to deliver subpoenas to Sánchez de Lozada and two former cabinet ministers living in the U.S. have impeded attempts to seek justice for the victims and stem future human rights violations in a politically tenuous climate.

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