Political interference plagued Bolivia’s justice system during the governments of former President Evo Morales (January 2006-November 2019) and former Interim President Jeanine Áñez (November 2019-2020). President Luis Arce, who took office in November 2020, has failed to spur justice reform.
The Arce administration supports unsubstantiated and excessive charges of terrorism and genocide against former President Áñez. In June 2022, a judge sentenced her to 10 years in prison on charges of dereliction of duty and contravening the law, which are defined very broadly in Bolivia. She was not allowed to attend her trial in person.
Nobody has been held accountable for 37 killings in the context of election-related protests in 2019, including of 20 people in two massacres during which state security forces opened fire on protesters, according to witnesses.
Women and girls remain at high risk of violence. Prison overcrowding—and excessive pretrial detention—continues. Indigenous communities face obstacles to exercising their right, under international law, to free, prior, and informed consent to measures that may affect them.
Judicial Independence and Due Process
The Morales and Áñez governments pursued what appeared to be politically motivated charges against political rivals.
After winning the October 2020 presidential election, President Arce said the justice system should be independent from politics, but his government has failed to take concrete steps to reform it.
In a May 2022 report, the United Nations special rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers said external interference in the justice system is a long-standing, continuing problem. Almost 50 percent of judges and 70 percent of prosecutors in Bolivia remained “temporary” as of February, the report noted. Officials who lack security of tenure may be vulnerable to reprisals, including arbitrary dismissal, if they make decisions that displease those in power.
In March 2021, police detained former Interim President Áñez and two of her former ministers on terrorism and other charges. The attorney general later accused Áñez of genocide in connection with two massacres during her government. Human Rights Watch reviewed the charging documents and found the terrorism and genocide charges unsubstantiated and grossly disproportionate. The definition of those crimes is overly broad under Bolivian law. As of October 2022, the two former ministers remained in pretrial detention.
In June 2022, in a separate case, a tribunal sentenced Áñez to ten years of prison for dereliction of duty and taking decisions contrary to the law—crimes that are also very broadly defined in Bolivian law—for her actions as she took office as interim president in November 2019. Áñez was not allowed to attend her own trial in person, as judges argued that they could not guarantee her health or security in the courthouse. That prevented Áñez from conferring with her lawyers during the hearings.
In April, Marco Aramayo died in his seventh year of detention amid serious allegations of inadequate health care and ill-treatment. In 2015, after he became the director of the state Indigenous development fund, he reported several corruption schemes allegedly involving prominent supporters of the Morales government. Instead of properly investigating those allegations, prosecutors had him detained and charged with corruption, according to ITEI, a Bolivian nonprofit.
Responding to criticism by Human Rights Watch and others, police said in June they would stop presenting people they had arrested to the press, a practice that risked violating the presumption of innocence. Yet, the minister of the interior continued to post photos of suspects on social media.
Protest-Related Violence and Abuses
The Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts (GIEI, in Spanish), established under a government agreement with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), issued a report in August 2021 documenting the deaths of 37 people in the context of protests over contested October 2019 elections.
It documented acts of violence “instigated” by the Morales administration, including injuries, abductions, and torture of anti-Morales protesters. It asserted that police failed to protect people from violence by both pro- and anti-Morales supporters, and in some locations encouraged and collaborated with violent groups of anti-Morales supporters acting as “para-police.”
It also concluded that, during the Áñez government, security forces killed 20 pro-Morales protesters and injured more than 170 people in massacres in Sacaba, a city in Cochabamba, and Senkata, a neighborhood of El Alto. The report provided robust evidence of other abuses throughout the country, including illegal detentions, sexual violence, and “systematic” torture by police in the predominantly Indigenous city of El Alto.
The GIEI highlighted major flaws in probes of the abuses and called on the Attorney General’s Office to reopen cases it had closed without crucial investigative steps. As of October 2022, no one had been held responsible for the crimes; Congress and the government were discussing a bill and policy to provide reparation to victims.
In March, the government signed an agreement with the IACHR for creation of an international mechanism to monitor implementation of the GIEI’s recommendations, but it failed to create a national-level mechanism for which the GIEI had also called.
Freedom of Expression and Access to Information
The National Press Association, which represents the country’s main print media, reported several cases of violence by police or demonstrators against reporters in 2022.
In August, the Attorney General’s Office announced an investigation of two journalists, a newscaster and other individuals who worked for a state TV channel during the Áñez administration, for allegedly paying the former newscaster a salary that was higher than the allowable rate. The crimes they were accused of carry a maximum penalty of ten years in prison. The president of the La Paz Press Association viewed the investigation as an attempt by the Arce administration, working with prosecutors, to intimidate Bolivian journalists.
Bolivia lacks a law regulating the allocation of paid advertising by the state. From January through August, 80 percent of the advertising contracts by the state with print media had gone to only two pro-government newspapers, several media reported.
Bolivia also lacks a law to implement the right of access to information enshrined in its constitution. In May 2022, the Arce administration said journalists’ associations—not the government—should draft an access to information bill.
Accountability for Past Abuses
Bolivian authorities have made insufficient efforts to hold accountable officials responsible for human rights violations under authoritarian governments between 1964 and 1982. Only a handful have been prosecuted. The armed forces have generally refused to share information.
After camping outside the Justice Ministry for more than a decade, several victims’ associations signed an agreement with the government in August, in which the Arce administration committed itself to reparation payments to victims or family members of various authoritarian-era abuses.
Detention centers in Bolivia hold more than 2.5 times more detainees than they were built to accommodate. The prison population grew 12 percent between November 2021 and March 2022, to 20,864 people, official data obtained by Fundación Construir, a Bolivian nongovernmental organization (NGO), showed.
Bolivia’s justice system continues to use pretrial detention excessively. As of March 2022, 65 percent of male detainees and 71 percent of female detainees were awaiting trial, Fundación Construir said.
The 2009 constitution includes comprehensive guarantees of Indigenous peoples’ rights to collective land titling; intercultural education; protection of Indigenous justice systems; and free, prior, and informed consent on development projects. Yet, Indigenous peoples face barriers in exercising those rights.
The Documentation and Information Center of Bolivia (CEDIB), an NGO, and the United Nations special rapporteur on toxics and human rights reported that growing, illegal use of mercury in mining is damaging the health of Indigenous communities.
Women’s and Girls’ Rights
Women and girls remain at high risk of violence, despite a 2013 law establishing comprehensive measures to prevent and prosecute gender-based violence. The law created the crime of “femicide,” defining it as the killing of a woman under certain circumstances, including domestic violence.
The attorney general reported 108 femicides in 2021 and 69 from January through September 2022.
A study published in The Lancet in February 2022 estimated, using data from 2000 to 2018, that 42 percent of Bolivian girls and women between 15 and 49 years old have suffered violence by a partner or former partner, the highest percentage in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Under Bolivian law, abortion is not a crime when pregnancy results from rape or when necessary to protect the life or health of a pregnant person. However, women and girls seeking such legal abortions are likely to encounter stigma, mistreatment, and revictimization.
Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity
In December 2020, Bolivia’s civil registry abided by a court order and registered a gay couple’s relationship as a “free union,” Bolivia’s first same-sex union. In May 2022, after delaying a year, the registry also registered a lesbian couple’s relationship.
The case brought by the first gay couple is pending before the Constitutional Court, which is expected to determine whether all same-sex couples can join in “free unions.”
Key International Actors
Throughout 2022, Bolivia has consistently opposed scrutiny on certain states’ human rights records and failed to protect victims’ rights in international forums. In the United Nations General Assembly and the UN Human Rights Council, it abstained or voted against multiple resolutions condemning Russia’s rights violations in Ukraine and voted against renewing the mandate of the UN fact-finding mission in Venezuela and holding a debate on the human rights situation in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China. In the Organization of American States, it abstained from a resolution calling on the Nicaraguan government to release political prisoners and cease persecution of media.
In March, the UN Human Rights Committee urged Bolivia to guarantee judges’ and prosecutors’ independence and impartiality; allow same-sex couples to enter into free unions; and protect journalists from threats and violence.
In July, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women expressed its concern over high levels of gender-based violence in Bolivia and called on the government to ensure thorough investigations. It also urged Bolivia to remove barriers to legal abortion, and to decriminalize abortion.