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BOLIVIA
A blow to impunity
José Antonio Aruquipa
10/21/2004
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Congress gives green light to try Sánchez de Lozada for “gas war” killings.

A year after 66 people died and dozens were wounded in the military crackdown against the "gas war" — the term used for the Bolvian people’s resistance against the export of natural gas through a Chilean port to North America — Congress authorized the Supreme Court to try former President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada and his 15 ex-ministers.

In October 2003 the demonstrators protested against the lack of transparency in the gas project and the likely benefits that Sánchez de Lozada (1993-97 and 2002-03) planned to give Chile, a highly unpopular country for much of the population after Bolivia lost its access to the sea to Chile in 1879 in the War of the Pacific. The popular insurrection forced Sánchez de Lozada to resign on Oct. 17. His vice president Carlos Mesa, a journalist and historian, succeeded him, as called for under the constitution.

Rev. Wilson Gonzalo Soria, testifying last year before Congress on what he called a "civilian massacre" between Oct. 10 and 12 in the poverty-stricken city of El Alto in the highlands of La Paz, recalled the scene after soldiers fired indiscriminately against civilians. "One person was missing half their neck…another had his chest blown open. I began to give the last rites…I began with the first then went on to the second…when I went back to the first, he had already died," he said.

Twelve months passed and the survivors continued to demand justice. The victims’ families had threatened to close Congress by force if it failed to order a political trial against Sánchez de Lozada, named as the main official responsible for the bloodshed. In the end force was not necessary. On Oct. 14, in midst of a climate of intense social pressure demanding justice for the former president, Congress decided in an exhausting, 12-hour session to put Sánchez de Lozada and his ex-collaborators on trial.

Political maneuver

According to the Law of Trials of Responsibilities, the legislature must approve by a minimum of 105 votes to try any president or state official, a process which is carried out by the Supreme Court. The vote in Congress was motivated by a request by the Movement to Socialism (MAS) to try Sánchez de Lozada, his ex-minister of defense, Carlos Sánchez Berzaín and his former minister of government, Yerko Kukoc.

To speed up the opening of these trials, two joint commissions (senators and deputies) were appointed to review the accusations and present reports on whether the trials could go ahead or not. In the Oct. 5 session — the deadline for the presentation of the reports — legislators allied with Sánchez de Lozada failed to show up and presentation of the reports was left pending. For MAS deputy Evo Morales, this was seen as a move by parties in Congress allied with Sánchez de Lozada — the Nationalist Revolutionary Movement (MNR), the Leftist Revolutionary Movement (MIR) and the New Republican Force (NFR) who together have 105 votes — to save the former president.

In protest over the delay tactics, opposition parties and labor organizations launched a series of protest actions aimed at what they called "seeing justice done."

On Oct. 13, the congressmen met as Bolivians watched. Although MAS was confident of having obtained the support of the NFR and MIR for its request to try Sánchez de Lozada and the two former ministers, events took an unexpected turn. Seeking to separate MAS from its allies, Sánchez de Lozada’s MNR proposed that the accusation include the entire cabinet of the former president, some of whom were also members of parliament from the MIR and NFR.

However, instead of delaying Congress’ decision, the legislators approved the motion, turning the MNR’s move into a shot in the foot.

First step

After finding out the results of the vote, the Bolivian Workers Confederation (COB) said it would ask Mesa’s government to seek the extradition of Sánchez de Lozada, who since Oct. 17, 2003 has been living in the United States.

The president of the Association of Families of Dead and Grave Amputees (AFFAGO), Néstor Salinas, and a group of human rights activists expressed satisfaction for a successful first step in what is likely to be a long, complex process.

The Criminal Code establishes a prison sentence of 10 to 20 years for genocide — the crime of which Sánchez de Lozada and his ex-collaborators are accused.

It is the second time in history that Congress has paved the way for a trial against a former president. Former dictator Luis García Meza, who in 1980 led a bloody military coup, was tried in a process that lasted more than seven years and was sentenced to 30 years in jail with no chance for a pardon.


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