The unrest was initially sparked by a government plan to export natural gas through a proposed pipeline to Chile [EPA]
Bolivia’s highest court has convicted five former military commanders of what was described as genocide over an army crackdown on unrest in 2003 in which at least 64 civilians were killed.
The commanders were given prison sentences ranging from 10 to 15 years at the court in Sucre on Tuesday.
In a unanimous decision, the six high court judges also convicted two former cabinet ministers of complicity in the killings and sentenced each to three years.
Indicted in the case but not tried was Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, Bolivia’s president at the time of the killings. He was forced into exile by the widespread popular anger the killings provoked.
Carlos Sanchez Berzain, the then-defence minister, was also indicted but not tried. Bolivian law prohibits trials in absentia and both men have found safety living in the United States.
Ana Reyes, a lawyer for Sanchez de Lozada, issued a statement calling Bolivia’s justice system highly politicised and saying that “no objective observer” can take the sentences seriously.
“Plainly, the Bolivian judiciary was used here as a political tool,” said Reyes.
The 2003 unrest was initially sparked by a government plan to export natural gas through a proposed pipeline to Chile.
It quickly set off protests by the largely indigenous population of La Paz’s satellite city, El Alto, which vented anger over poverty, political marginalisation and the extraction of natural resources from Pachamama – the Aymara term of a highly spiritualised Mother Earth.
The demonstrations and crackdown, in what has become known as the ‘Gas War’ and ‘Black October’, largely discredited the government and brought major support for Evo Morales, one of the social movement leaders, who won the presidency two years later.
Ironically, the indigenous community is currently on a 526km march against Morales’ environmental policy, accusing him of ignoring his base and supporting construction of a highway which would damage the TIPNIS national park.
Sanchez de Lozada, whose indictment was authorised by Congress before Morales’ December 2005 election, has long argued that using force was justified because a blockade by unruly protesters in El Alto had cut off La Paz from food and fuel.
But prosecutors said nothing justified letting soldiers open fire on civilians who were armed only with sticks and rocks. Sixty-four people were killed and 405 wounded, Chief Prosecutor Mario Uribe said.
One witness in the trial told of how her curious five-year-old son, Alex Llusco, was killed by a gunshot to the head when he stepped onto their porch to watch the protests. He was the youngest of those killed.
Families of victims erupted in tears when the verdict was announced at a brief public hearing in Sucre, where the court sits. Many had held a vigil outside for two months.
The longest sentences were meted out to Roberto Claros, the armed forces chief during the crackdown, and Juan Veliz, the army commander.
Both were given 15 years in prison for “genocide in the form of a bloody massacre” and murder.
The convicted former cabinet ministers were Erick Reyes Villa, who had been environment minister, and Adalberto Kuajara, the labour minister.
As a legislator in late 2003, Morales became the first person to formally request criminal charges be brought against Sanchez de Lozada in the case.
One of the convicted military men, the former armed forces chief of staff, Gonzalo Rocabado, called the case misguided because it was “a trial against the armed forces that followed the law”.
Bolivia has sought the extradition of Sanchez de Lozada and Sanchez Berzain, who lives in Florida.
The US State Department did not immediately respond on Tuesday to a query from the AP news agency on the status of that request.