Bolivia government abusing justice system against Morales and allies

Bolivia government abusing justice system against Morales and allies

14:33 - Human Rights Watch report accuses administration of Jeanine Áñez of overseeing legal offensive against people linked to Morales

Bolivia’s rightwing caretaker government is abusing the justice system to wage a politically motivated witch-hunt against former president Evo Morales and his allies, a new report by Human Rights Watch claims.

The report accuses the US-backed administration of Jeanine Áñez – who became interim leader after Morales was forced into exile last November – of overseeing a legal offensive against more than 100 people linked to Bolivia’s first indigenous president.

The group claimed prosecutors had charged some Morales backers with terrorism for simply speaking to him on the phone.

Morales, who now lives in Argentina, himself faces terrorism charges relating to an alleged phone call in November 2019 in which authorities claim he urged protesters to blockade Bolivia’s de facto capital, La Paz.

José Miguel Vivanco, Human Rights Watch’s Americas director, said Áñez’s government was trying to give a facade of legality to a campaign against political foes.

“The interim government is using the justice system as a weapon against Morales for political reasons,” he said.

“The whole idea of using the judicial system to persecute Morales and his allies with ludicrous charges such as terrorism comes from the top.”

Áñez’s administration has been vocal about its desire to pursue Morales, who was seeking a fourth presidential term when last October’s election descended into chaos, amid street protests, a deadly military crackdown and subsequently questioned claims of electoral fraud.

Morales resigned under pressure from security forces and fled to Mexico, in what supporters call a US-backed coup.

In an interview with the Guardian at the time, Áñez’s interior minister, Arturo Murillo, vowed to jail the former coca farmer who was first elected in 2005.

“Any terrorist should spend the rest of their life in prison … Evo Morales or whoever,” Murillo said, pledging: “Evo Morales … will never be candidate to anything else in this country.”

Claims over the anti-Morales crusade come at an uncertain time for one of South America’s poorest countries.

A twice-postponed rerun of last year’s voided election is scheduled for 18 October and one of the world’s worst coronavirus outbreaks is still raging.

Bolivia’s official death toll is just 5,398 but the true situation is feared to be far worse. Some areas have employed mobile crematoriums while special police units have been tasked with collecting corpses from homes, vehicles and pavements.

“Bolivia is in the most precarious condition it has been in for 30 years,” said Jim Shultz, founder of the Bolivia-focused Democracy Centre.

Shultz said Bolivia, where an early lockdown failed to contain the epidemic, had jumped “from the frying pan into the fire” since the upheaval of 2019.

“It’s a very precarious political moment, on top of a really tragic public health crisis, and a very difficult economic moment. Bolivia had many years of good steady economic growth … Now, it’s in economic crisis, public health crisis and political crisis all at once.”

With five weeks to the election, polls suggest the candidate for Morales’ Movement Towards Socialism (Mas) party, Luis Arce, leads with 26.2% of intended votes.

In second with 17.1% is the centre-right former president Carlos Mesa.

Áñez, who has been widely criticised for running after publicly committing not to, trails in third with 10.4%.

“It really looks like Mas will win and I think they may win without a run-off,” said Shultz. “If the right wing really wanted to stop Mas they could have coalesced around Mesa … But there are just so many egos involved.”

After last year’s turmoil, Shultz said Bolivia had needed moderate interim leaders to unite citizens and organize fresh and fair elections.

“Instead, what they got was a rightwing, ideological government that took corruption and incompetence to new heights just when the country needed stable government the most with the virus.”

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