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Events of 2009

Bolivia's new constitution was promulgated by President Evo Morales and came into effect on February 7, 2009, after being approved by 61 percent of the vote in a referendum on January 25. Bolivia's deep political, ethnic, and regional divisions (including over the new constitution) and the fragility of its democratic institutions contribute to a precarious human rights situation. Almost two-thirds of the population lives below the national poverty line, and over a third-mostly indigenous peoples-lives in extreme poverty.

Lack of accountability for rights abuses is a chronic problem. Both supporters and opponents of Morales, as well as the police and military, have been accused of killings during violent clashes between rival demonstrators in recent years. Investigations into these unlawful killings have almost invariably failed to establish criminal responsibility.

Although Bolivia enjoys diverse media and a vibrant public debate, political polarization has brought violent attacks on journalists and media outlets by both pro-government and opposition demonstrators.

Political Violence, Accountability, and Impunity

Violence has arisen from deep disagreements over the procedures to approve the new constitution and over demands for autonomy by five lowland departments. A tense standoff between Morales's largely indigenous supporters and the departmental prefects and their supporters in the breakaway departments led to violent clashes in 2007 and 2008 in the cities of Santa Cruz, Sucre, Tarija, and Cobija, with deaths and injuries on both sides. There were fewer incidents of political violence in 2009, after opposition legislators reached a compromise with the governing party and the new "pluri-national" constitution was approved. However, the performance of prosecutors and courts in establishing accountability for acts of violence continues to be poor.

A seriously weakened judiciary is a major problem. The chief justice is currently suspended and facing impeachment proceedings, while four other Supreme Court justices have also been suspended or have retired, leaving the court barely able to function. All the members of the Constitutional Tribunal have resigned for political reasons and will not be replaced until an election is held in 2010. In addition, there have been time-consuming conflicts over jurisdiction between regional and La Paz-based courts.

One of the most serious incidents of violence in 2009 was an attack by government supporters on the home of former vice-president Víctor Hugo Cárdenas, a prominent opponent of the new constitution. In March hundreds of indigenous peasants occupied and looted Cárdenas's home in Sankajahuira, west of La Paz. The mob beat Cárdenas's wife, children, and nephew with sticks and whips, and forced them out of the house; they were admitted to hospital for their injuries. Cárdenas was not at home at the time of the attack. By November no progress had been reported in the investigation of the incident.

In April 2009 a dynamite charge damaged the gate of the home of the Archbishop of Santa Cruz, Julio Terrazas, who has been a prominent critic of the Morales government. The following night an elite police unit stormed a hotel in the city center ostensibly in pursuit of the culprits, shot dead three hotel guests, and detained two other men. Government ministers said the five were foreign mercenaries belonging to a cell financed by right-wing separatists in Santa Cruz, and that they suspected them of planning attacks on government officials, including President Morales. Opposition leaders in Santa Cruz accused the government of staging the plot. As of November 2009 the two detainees were still being held without charge in La Paz's San Pedro prison. In August the Supreme Court ruled that a court in Santa Cruz should have jurisdiction in the case, which until then had been under investigation in La Paz. The government, which doubted the impartiality of the Santa Cruz court, threatened to impeach the justices responsible for the ruling.

The circumstances of the April shootings have still not been clarified. The police maintain that there was a 30-minute shootout during which they fired in self defense. The government has not released the findings of an inquest into the deaths, if any such investigation has been carried out. However, an Irish state pathologist who examined the body of one of the victims, Irishman Michael Dwyer, concluded that he had been shot dead with a single dumdum bullet in the heart, fired by someone standing over him, "most likely as he was sitting up in bed."

In October 2009 the prefect of Pando department, Leopoldo Fernández, was indicted on charges of homicide, terrorism, and conspiracy for the killing of at least nine pro-Morales demonstrators in Porvenir, Pando department, in September 2008. Armed supporters of the departmental government had reportedly opened fire indiscriminately on pro-Morales demonstrators as they were running away. Some of the dozens of wounded were allegedly beaten while being taken in ambulances to hospital. Fernández had been held for more than a year without charge.

Bolivian courts still seek to establish criminal responsibility for the killing of more than 60 people in anti-government protests in September and October 2003, when the army used lethal force to quell violent protests in the highland city of El Alto. Former President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada resigned and left the country following the events, known in Bolivia as "Black October." In October 2007 the attorney general accused Sánchez de Lozada, 11 of his ministers, and 5 former military chiefs of genocide and torture in connection with the army's actions.

The former president, his defense minister Carlos Sánchez Berzaín, and the former energy minister Jorge Berinduague currently reside in the United States, where Sánchez Berzaín has obtained political asylum. In November 2008 Bolivia formally requested that the US extradite the three men to face trial in Bolivia. Bolivia is also seeking the extradition from Peru of three other former government ministers in connection with the same case. In May 2009 the Bolivian Supreme Court opened impeachment proceedings, and Sánchez de Lozada, Sánchez Berzaín, and Berinduague were declared to be to be fugitives from justice. The trial began in the absence of most of the 17 defendants.

Media Freedom

Bolivia enjoys a vibrant public debate, with a variety of critical and pro-government media outlets. As political polarization has deepened, many news outlets have openly taken sides. President Morales often lambasts the private media for distorting facts and seeking to discredit him. In March 2009 he sued the director of the newspaper La Prensa for disrespect (desacato) and libel following the publication in December 2008 of an article suggesting that he had given a "green light" to the smuggling of some trucks. La Prensa's editor and the author of the article reportedly received anonymous death threats by telephone.

Journalists on both sides of the political divide have suffered acts of violence and intimidation. In September 2009 a police unit, led by the same official responsible for the Santa Cruz hotel raid, attacked a journalist and cameraman working for the UNITEL television network while they were reporting on an arrest in Santa Cruz. According to press reports, a police vehicle rammed their car, and three officers forced them out at gunpoint, beat them, made them lie down on the ground, shot at the vehicle, and removed their videocamera.

Human Rights Defenders

Supporters of regional autonomy in Santa Cruz have firebombed and ransacked offices of NGOs defending land rights of indigenous and peasant communities. The Center for Legal Studies and Social Research (CEJIS) has been the victim of repeated violent attacks. In February 2009 two unidentified men on a motorbike shot at a car driven by Miguel Gonzáles, CEJIS's regional director in Trinidad, capital of Beni department. A few days earlier he had shaken off vehicles that were following him. CEJIS complained that local prosecutors had failed to carry out a serious investigation into the attempted killing.

Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity

The new constitution explicitly bans discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. However, according to local human rights activists, by October 2009 the government had not taken effective steps to implement this protection.

Key International Actors

In 2008 the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights established an office in Bolivia to strengthen human rights protection. Criticizing the lack of accountability for the events in Pando, which it described as a massacre, the Bolivia office noted the judiciary's longstanding structural problems.

In July 2009 the United States deported Luis Arce Gómez to Bolivia. Arce had been minister of the interior during the dictatorship of Gen. Luis García Meza (1980-81), and had completed half a prison sentence in the USA for drug-trafficking. In 1993 the Bolivian Supreme Court convicted both Arce and García Meza in absentia for rights abuses and sentenced them to 30 years in prison. Both men are now serving time in La Paz.