Latin America & Caribbean

Victims of Bolivian military rule 'erased from history'

Protest camp outside in La Paz Image copyright Nia Haf
Image caption Victims and their relatives have been holding a vigil outside the justice ministry since 2012

Thousands of victims of human rights violations committed during 18 years of military rule in Bolivia are being denied access to justice and compensation, according to Amnesty International. Paula Dear and Amaru Villanueva Rance report from La Paz on allegations that there is a lack of political will to uncover the truth.

Across the street from Bolivia's Ministry of Justice building in central La Paz, a makeshift protest encampment has become part of the landscape over the past two years.

They sleep, eat and live there - every day chalking up the time they have spent on their vigil, and every day hoping someone will listen to their demands.

"There is injustice in the treatment [of] those who have achieved and defended the democracy the Bolivian people now enjoy. We're not looking for privileges, we're looking for justice," says Julio Llanos, an ex-mining union activist who lost a finger when he was detained and tortured.

The protestors are part of a wider movement of victims and relatives who have for decades been calling for the creation of an independent truth and justice commission.

Image copyright Amaru Villanueva Rance
Image caption Julio Llanos lost a finger when he was detained and tortured in Bolivia

They want those responsible to be held to account and full reparations for those who suffered, including public recognition.

Uphill struggle

But according to a report published by Amnesty International on Tuesday, the protesters face an uphill struggle.

The report - 'Do Not Erase Me From History: truth, justice and reparation in Bolivia - says that the Andean nation suffers from a lack of political will to uncover the truth of the past, including dealing with the perpetrators of executions, detentions, torture, disappearances and forced exiles.

While recognising that some efforts have been made by successive governments to confront the fallout from the dictatorship period of 1964-82, it says there is still no comprehensive policy to ensure the state meets its international human rights obligations.

Union and political activists were among the main groups targeted for persecution under a series of military and authoritarian regimes.

Amnesty International says at least 200 people were summarily executed while more than 150 were victims of forced disappearances.

Around 5,000 people were arbitrarily detained - some of whom were tortured - and thousands forced into exile.

Its report says the lack of action by the Bolivian government to uncover the full truth condemns the victims to "oblivion".

Image copyright Nia Haf
Image caption Many Bolivians still bear the wounds of torture inflicted upon them under military rule

"Bolivia cannot pass over this black page in its history without reading it all," says researcher Maria Jose Eva Parada.

'Absurd requirements'

The report acknowledges that a 2004 law (Law 2640) was passed aimed at providing compensation and other benefits, such as healthcare and counselling costs, to survivors and relatives of those killed or disappeared.

But eight years on, fewer than a third of the 6,200 claimants had been accepted as eligible.

The government said it had complied with the legislation.

But campaigners argue that new criteria, added when the law was modified in 2007, lowered compensation levels and laid a heavy burden of proof onto claimants.

These included a need for medical documents to certify torture injuries, or passports showing exiled claimants' movements across borders - which were, by definition, clandestine.

Lourdes Koya was unlawfully detained and tortured for having alleged links with the Marxist-Leninist National Liberation Army (ELN) before going into exile in Argentina for 10 years.

"We cannot still have a passport 30 years later. I left for Argentina, where a military junta was in power. They gave me residency and I burned my passport," she explains.

"[The government] asks for things that are impossible to prove. You have to present a forensic certificate to say your ribs were broken in 1972. Who would give you a certificate to say they have persecuted you, or that your teeth were punched out, or that they burst your eardrums? The burden of proof cannot be on the victim," she told the BBC.

Key evidence

Among the key demands of the victims is that classified military records are opened up for scrutiny, but Amnesty says there has been a "lack of co-operation of the military authorities" - an allegation the government has repeatedly denied.

"The government is dependent on the military and doesn't want to touch them," says Mr Llanos.

While many activists say that compensation money is less important than an acknowledgement of the truth, there is anger over the small sums offered to only a few people.

The amounts paid to successful claimants have not been made public.

But lawyer Mario Salinas, who was tortured and later escaped from a concentration camp in the 1970s, said 40% of those found eligible had been offered an average of 800 Bolivianos ($115; £70).

Image copyright Amaru Villanueva Rance
Image caption Mario Salinas says it is not about the compensation money but about recognition of their suffering

Campaigners say fewer than half of the people collected their cheques because the cost of travel to la Paz would have been higher than the money they were due.

"But it is no longer a question of money, it is a question of honour," stresses Mr Salinas.

"I fight for my comrades who are struggling in their old age. I want recognition of what has happened ... I want my children and grandchildren to know about this dark period in my life," he explains of his dogged determination to make his case heard.

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