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Tuesday, January 15, 2008

HRF: Enshrining Mob Rule in Bolivia: Communal Justice and the New Constitution

LA PAZ, Bolivia -- 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.


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