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2003 | 55th Regular Session of the UN Sub-Commission on Human Rights (28 July - 15 August 2003)

The administration of Justice in Bolivia: the unfair trial of Mr. Guillermo Roelants

Fifty-fifth Session, Palais des Nations, Geneva, 28 July – 15 August 2003Madame Chairperson,

Franciscans International, in conjunction with Dominicans for Justice and Peace and Franciscans International Bolivia, condemns the unfair and irregular proceedings in the trial of Mr. Guillermo Roelants, President of the Tierra S.A. Social Project, and his Co-Workers (“Ministerio Público contra Guillermo Roelants y otros”). These proceedings are indicative of a continued deterioration in the administration of justice in Bolivia. The boric acid plant of Tierra S.A. was ordered confiscated by the Bolivian Government. The case is currently under appeal at the Superior Court in La Paz. At the moment, the plant is still operational, though the jobs of the workers are uncertain.

On 18 July 2003, the accused were found guilty of trafficking 3,500 tons of sulphuric acid and sentenced in the first instance, under the controversial Law 1008.

Background: Tierra S.A. Social Project.

Tierra S.A. was established in the 1980s with the initial support of Terre ASBL and FOS (Fonds voor Ontwikkelingssamenwerking), Belgian NGOs supported by a development agency of the Belgian Government, as well as other NGOs. Tierra S.A. has operated as an “industrial social project” providing just wages and medical care to 300 workers in Apacheta, Province of South Lipez-Potosí—the poorest region of Bolivia, bordering on Chile, at an altitude of 5,000 metres. It is a model development project that provides long term work possibilities and technical training to local communities.

This boric acid factory uses the natural geothermal steam as a source of energy and heat, and the abundant local deposits of boron for the manufacture of the product, which is exported abroad.

Background: the Charges

In September 2000, Mr. Roelants and his colleagues were charged with the deviation of 8,000 to
20,000 tons of sulphuric acid for use in the processing of cocaine in Chapare—a tropical region more than 1,500 kilometres from the boric acid plant in mountainous Apacheta, with poor or nonexistent roads in between.

Sulphuric acid, a commonly used chemical with numerous legitimate industrial uses, is necessary to manufacture boric acid. However, it is also a controlled substance under Bolivian Law 1008, which makes no distinction between controlled substances and chemical precursors commonly used in industrial applications.

Background: Detention of the Accused:

The accused were detained from the very beginning in subhuman conditions such as three persons to a cell (measuring 2 metres x 1.5 metres), without food or adequate toilet facilities and restricted contact with lawyers and family members, as well as inadequate medical assistance. The accused were eventually transferred to maximum security prisons.

Judicial Irregularities:

Under Law 1008, it is the responsibility of the accused to provide proof of innocence, since there is only a presumption of guilt.

The trial was characterized by a curtailment of the rights of the defence and the right of due process, including:

· The complete absence of material evidence from the prosecution of a deviation of sulphuric acid, as well as the existence of illegal accounts;
· An accusation based mainly on false documents such as tests on the sulphuric acid consumption in the manufacture of boric acid, or the export statistics of boric acid;
· Deliberately hidden evidence by the prosecution, including important correspondence between Tierra S.A. and Bolivian Customs, as well as official documents sent to the prosecution by Chilean Customs.

Moreover, documents presented by the independent experts, which proved no possible deviation of sulphuric acid, as well as the Bolivian Government’s own technical report were deemed inadmissible and not considered in the deliberations of the judges, until they were legally obliged to do so by the Sucre-based National Constitutional Court.

In the sentence read on 18 July 2003, the judges condemned the accused of trafficking 3,500 tons of sulphuric acid, despite the full accounting of common international exportation documents (such as maritime bills of lading and other official customs documents issued by the Bolivian and Chilean authorities).

While the trial was underway, the Provisional Administrator of the plant (named by the judges themselves), as well as plant workers, were harassed by State Prosecutors for complicity with the accused. The Prosecutor has requested approximately 40 times that the plant be closed.

We are particularly surprised that the corporate lawyer of Tierra S.A., as well as the owner of the mineral rights, was found guilty and sentenced.

We also note the attempts of Chilean and North American boric acid interests that, for the past two years, have been present in this area of Bolivia in order to gain control of the important boron mineral reserves processed by Tierra S.A.

Tried twice for the same offense:

Moreover, the accused were also judged simultaneously for the same ‘crimes’ in the city of Potosí, at a distance of more than 400 kilometres from La Paz, making it materially impossible to be present at both trials at the same time, on the same days. This Potosí trial only lasted 15 days and condemned the accused to an additional 4 years in prison—constituting ‘double jeopardy’, contrary to international legal norms and standards.

In spite of the presence of two lawyers representing Tierra S.A. in the Potosí trial, the judge named a public defender in their place allowing him only 24 hours to prepare the defence of nine persons, while having to read a dossier of more than 4,000 pages.

Law 1008 and the Administration of Justice in Bolivia:

Clearly, Bolivian Law 1008 does not respect international norms and standards, establishing a new system outside of the usual Bolivian legal norm, which presumes guilt over innocence. The defence has to prove innocence in every case. This law was designed in part to accelerate the processing of illegal drug trafficking and drug-related cases in Bolivia, where the accused are presumed guilty and imprisoned until proven innocent. Particularly, Chapters 5 and 6 of Law 1008 contain different dispositions that limit the rights of defence and to due process. For instance, there is no instruction phase and the investigation of the police is automatically considered evidence.

In May 2001, the New Code of Penal Procedure repealed many of the more controversial elements of Law 1008, thus providing greater respect to the rights of the defence. Regardless, Mr. Roelants and his colleagues were tried and convicted under the pre-2001 law.

Franciscans International, in conjunction with Dominicans for Justice and Peace and Franciscans International Bolivia, recommends that the Sub-Commission urge the Bolivian authorities to:

1. Rescind all charges in the Law 1008 judgment, since they were proven false by the technical documentation of independent and government experts;
2. Annul the process and sentence in Potosí, which began after the trial in La Paz;
3. Guarantee the functioning of the Tierra Social Project’s boric acid plant in Apacheta, as well as the protection of the workers’ rights;
4. Respect to the right to a fair trial, in line with its obligations pursuant to international human rights norms and standards, including Article 14 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and Article 8 of the American Convention on Human Rights.

Thank you, Madame Chairperson.


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