Terrorism charges against former Bolivian President Evo Morales over violence that erupted in the country after he fled the country last year, appear to be “politically motivated”, a rights group has said in a report.
The charges were traced to a single phone call with his former lawyer and chief of staff, during which Morales allegedly encouraged protests and road blockades, amid nationwide unrest over the disputed results of the presidential elections that gave him a narrow fourth term victory.
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“We looked at the whole case file,” Cesar Munoz, Americas senior researcher at Human Rights Watch (HRW) and author of the report, said on Friday. “We found that the evidence that he [Evo Morales] committed terrorism acts is zero, there is no evidence,” Munoz told Al Jazeera.
“We believe that the case against him is not based on an interest in upholding the law, but appears to be politically motivated,” he said.
HRW also found that the 20-year prison term sought for Morales’s alleged offence is “wholly disproportionate”.
Morales, Bolivia’s first Indigenous president, was pressured to resign in November last year amid allegations that he committed election fraud, charges that have since been disputed.
The rights group said it had found evidence that Morales, the longest-serving president of the Andean nation and founder of the popular left-wing Movement of Socialism party (MAS), had used the justice system against his opponents during his 13-year mandate.
Jeanine Anez, a right-wing leader who took over as interim president in a power vacuum last year, promising swift new elections, “had a chance to break with the past and strengthen judicial independence”.
“Instead, it turned the justice system into a weapon to be used against their political rivals, and we have seen a wave of criminal investigations and prosecutions of people who are connected to Evo Morales, and Evo Morales himself,” he said.
HRW, in its 47-page report, said researchers interviewed Interior Minister Arturo Murillo and Ombudsman Nadia Cruz along with justice officials during its inquiry, and had access to thousands of pages of documents and case files.
The group was also given access to court documents and police reports relating to 21 cases of more than 100 former Morales administration members or supporters, accused of crimes including terrorism, sedition, belonging to a criminal organisation and dereliction of duty.
“The Human Rights Watch report comes as no surprise, given the administration’s very public hardline approach to Morales,” said Filipe Carvalho, Bolivia analyst with the Eurasia Group. “It is a sign of the massive polarisation in the country which will continue in the post-electoral outlook,” Carvalho said.
The report comes amid simmering tensions as Bolivia heads towards presidential elections which have been delayed several times due to the coronavirus pandemic. They are scheduled to take place on October 18.
Anez has sustained heavy criticism for her handling of the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed more than 7,000 people in the country. She has also been accused of seeking to delay the vote to consolidate her grip on power.
Earlier this week, Anez’s government referred opposition supporters who led protests and road blockades against election delays to the International Criminal Court, saying that cutting civilians off from medical help constituted “crimes against humanity”.
On Monday, a Bolivian court rejected Morales’s appeal against a ruling that banned him for running for a senate seat, on the grounds he does not qualify, as he is no longer a Bolivian resident.
Morales currently lives in exile in Argentina, where he continues to exert influence and command loyalty among his supporters, especially among the country’s Indigenous groups.