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Genocide prosecution of former president tests Bolivia’s justice system

Bolivian former interim president Jeanine Áñez speaks with her lawyers from a prison cell on March 13 after being arrested in La Paz. (Luis Gandarillas/AFP/Getty Images)

On the day before Bolivian former interim president Jeanine Áñez was arrested and detained this year, accused of gaining power by fomenting a coup in 2019, she left her supporters with a message: “The political persecution has begun.”

And in the five months since, as Áñez’s mental and physical health has deteriorated in jail, the conservative former leader has become a symbol of the deepening polarization in Bolivia.

To some, she’s the victim of a vengeful, politically motivated justice system under her socialist successor, President Luis Arce. To others, she’s a usurper who staged a coup that dislodged longtime president Evo Morales, and then presided over systematic human rights abuses by police.

On Saturday, a day after prosecutors announced new charges of “genocide” against her, Áñez cut her own wrist, in what her lawyer described as “a cry for help.” The news prompted her supporters, the European Union and the U.S. Embassy in Bolivia to call on the Arce government to safeguard her well-being.

“She’s not asking for impunity,” her lawyer, Norka Cuellar, told reporters. “She’s asking to defend herself in her own home.”

As the U.S.-backed government in Bolivia unleashes a wave of political persecution, the Trump administration remains silent

The question of whether and how to prosecute those responsible for the violence that followed Morales’s resignation and flight from Bolivia in late 2019 — including shootings by police that left at least 20 people dead and 98 injured — is testing this politically volatile South American nation.

“Since Bolivia lacks an independent judicial system, it will be very difficult to have an impartial investigation into these allegations,” said César Muñoz, a senior researcher with Human Rights Watch.

The Organization of American States’ human rights watchdog last week reported evidence of “massacres,” “systematic torture,” and “summary executions” by security forces under Áñez’s interim government. Incidents of excessive police force against Morales supporters occurred after Áñez signed a decree guaranteeing amnesty for security forces restoring order in the country, according to the Group of Independent Experts commissioned by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

To some of Áñez’s critics, the report provided clear-cut evidence of the charges against the former interim leader. But even as international human rights groups and the State Department demanded an investigation into the OAS watchdog’s allegations, many doubted that the country’s justice system was capable of pursuing an impartial case against the former president.

“We fear that the Arce government is going to cherry-pick the report and just use the parts that they see as strengthening their political interests,” while ignoring abuses by its own supporters, Muñoz said. He said the report outlined credible evidence of the role security forces played in the November 2019 killings of Morales supporters in Senkata and Sacaba in November 2019. But he argued that the charges the Arce government is pursuing are disproportionate.

“They were brutal, outrageous massacres,” Muñoz said. “But two massacres don’t make genocide. These disproportionate charges are not helpful to the victims.”

The State Department is watching closely.

“The victims of any human rights violations committed deserve justice, and justice requires accountability,” a department spokesperson said. “Justice also requires independent courts, a respect for due process and the adherence to the rule of law in any legal proceedings against the accused.”

Nadia Cruz, Bolivia’s ombudsman, acknowledged structural flaws in the country’s justice system. But she said they cannot be used as an excuse or obstacle to holding Áñez accountable. “Bolivia’s population cannot be left without access to justice while these structural issues are resolved,” she said.

In Bolivia, an interim leader leaves her conservative mark

Bolivia’s minister of government, Eduardo del Castillo, said Saturday that Áñez was in stable condition after sustaining “some small scratches on one of her arms.”

U.N. representatives who visited her in jail on Sunday said she reported feeling “physically weakened and deeply emotionally affected.” She has received medical and psychiatric attention, and was being granted visits from family members at night, the representatives said in a statement.

Áñez was vice president of the Bolivian senate in October 2019 when Bolivia’s election tribunal declared Morales the winner of an election that critics said was marred by fraud. Rising protests drove Morales out of the country. In the absence of Morales and other top leaders from his Movement for Socialism, Áñez declared herself the nation’s interim president — and was soon recognized by the United States.

At first, Áñez promised to be a caretaker leader with the sole objective of organizing new elections. But the conservative Morales critic was soon replacing cabinet ministers and top military leaders and threatening to prosecute “seditious” lawmakers. Prosecutors under her administration pursued terrorism charges against the exiled Morales.

Arce, a former finance minister under Morales, won a landslide victory in October. In March, authorities arrested Áñez and several former government officials on charges of “sedition, terrorism and conspiracy.”

Bolivians remain divided on the question of whether Áñez’s rise to the presidency was, in fact, a coup.

Hernán Terrazas, a political analyst and journalist, said the Arce government is merely pursuing a “politics of revenge” rather than focusing on the pressing challenges of the coronavirus pandemic and the economic crisis.

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Allegations of excessive use of force under her government should be investigated, Terrazas said, but by a justice system that is “balanced, that’s independent.”

“We’re facing a justice system that’s an instrument of punishment and vendetta,” he said.

Kathryn Ledebur, director of the Andean Information Network, argued that Áñez’s ascent to the presidency was a “textbook coup.” She rejected the idea that her pretrial detention amounted to political persecution. She pointed to the systematic torture documented in the OAS watchdog report.

The Group of Independent Experts described illegal detentions in which detainees were subjected to beatings and Taser shocks, ordered to stay on their knees for hours with their hands behind their necks and at times deprived of water, food or access to a bathroom. The group also reported evidence of female detainees being threatened with sexual assault and harassment.

“There’s a powerful discourse, which I would say is very discriminatory, racist, classist discourse, that low-income people can be tortured … but Jeanine Áñez by the very nature of being in pretrial detention is being persecuted. I don’t think that’s an accurate situation,” Ledebur said. “I’m sorry that she’s having a hard time emotionally. That doesn’t mean that what’s happening to her is illegal, abusive or illegitimate.”

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