Enshrining Mob Rule in Bolivia: Communal Justice and the New Constitution
LA PAZ, Bolivia (January 15, 2008) -- Lashing, crucifixion and other forms of corporal punishment would be legal in a new constitution proposed by the government of Bolivian President Evo Morales. Since 2005, Bolivia has seen a dramatic increase in such disturbing practices, including lynchings and torture, meted out under an informal system known as “communal justice.” Cases include death sentences for women accused of adultery and the beating, stoning, hanging, and burning of an elected official accused of corruption.
“Communal justice entirely disregards due process. In theory, it enables indigenous communities to address their needs in a fair and disinterested manner. In practice, it is judicial terror. It is breathtaking that the Morales government wishes to enshrine such arbitrary and barbaric practices and make them legally unappealable,” said Thor Halvorssen, president of the Human Rights Foundation (HRF). Today, HRF published a report on Bolivia’s communal justice system.
“Communal justice” is an Inca practice derived from ancient custom law that currently allows local leaders to impart justice directly for crimes perpetrated by members of their indigenous communities, bypassing the Bolivian legal system. The practice sometimes involves communal leaders engaging in rituals such as consulting coca leaves. It came to the attention of the international press in June of 2004, when a group of people in La Paz kidnapped Benjamin Altamirano, former mayor of Ayo Ayo. Altamirano was brutally killed by a mob after the Bolivian court system found no evidence of wrongdoing or misconduct in accusations of corruption leveled against him. The Morales government proposes to make communal justice the only system of law available to indigenous communities—with no right to appeal and no due process guarantees for the accused.
“This system would allow the government to subjugate Bolivia’s population under the threat of an instant trial with deadly consequences,” said Halvorssen. President Morales and representatives of his government have stated that they support lashings as a “symbolic” way of promoting communal justice. Research carried out by HRF reveals that such punishments are hardly symbolic.
Twenty-eight (28) reported cases include instances of women buried alive for adultery and additional episodes of angry mobs raiding town halls and police headquarters to take justice into their own hands. Because the authorities fear confronting those who carry out such barbaric practices, the perpetrators of communal justice are neither prosecuted under ordinary law, nor made accountable for their crimes.
The government’s deputies have introduced communal justice into the proposed new constitution, which will effectively grant the practice constitutional status should the new constitution be approved in referendum. Notably, these provisions for communal justice violate the human rights guarantees contained in the new constitution itself; they also violate multiple international treaties to which Bolivia is signatory. HRF’s report makes several policy recommendations and is available on its website at www.HumanRightsFoundation.org.
HRF is an international nonpartisan organization devoted to defending human rights in the American hemisphere. It centers its work on the twin concepts of freedom of self-determination and freedom from tyranny. These ideals include the belief that all human beings have the rights to speak freely, to associate with those of like mind, and to leave and enter their countries. Individuals in a free society must be accorded equal treatment and due process under law, and must have the opportunity to participate in the governments of their countries; HRF’s ideals likewise find expression in the conviction that all human beings have the right to be free from arbitrary detainment or exile and from interference and coercion in matters of conscience. HRF’s International Council includes former prisoners of conscience Vladimir Bukovsky, Palden Gyatso, Armando Valladares, Ramón J. Velásquez, Elie Wiesel, and Harry Wu.