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In dialogue with Bolivia, Experts of the Committee against Torture welcome progress against gender-based violence and ask about prison overcrowding and cases of torture

26 November 2021

The Committee against Torture this afternoon concluded its consideration of the third periodic report of Bolivia on the efforts made by the State party to implement the provisions of the Convention against Torture.  During the dialogue, Committee Experts welcomed progress made in the law and public policies in Bolivia to tackle gender-based violence against women, adolescents and girls, and asked about prison overcrowding and cases of torture.   

A Committee Expert noted that the prison population had increased from just over 10,000 in 2007 to 18,500 now, while the prison capacity had increased from 4,700 in 2007 to 6,765 in 2021.  That was a worrying rate of prison overcrowding.  There was also an excessive use of pre-trial detention, making up 64 per cent of detainees.  In relation to the 2019 elections, another Expert asked the delegation to provide updated statistical data on the number of reports of torture and ill treatment, including sexual violence and excessive use of force leading to the death of protesters. 

On gender-based violence, a Committee Expert welcomed progress made in the law and public policies in Bolivia to tackle gender-based violence against women, adolescents and girls, and asked if the delegation could inform the Committee about the opening date of the four shelters that were planned?  The Committee had been informed about cases of violence against women in detention.  Could the delegation also provide statistical information, including on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex detainees? 

The delegation explained that overcrowding had been reduced, resulting inter alia from presidential decrees on humanitarian grounds, and recommendations from international organizations leading to the publication of presidential decrees.  The COVID-19 pandemic had been one reason for the releases.  The State was trying to resolve the situation of overcrowding, including through regional and national governments creating new prisons.  Justice officials were working to reduce prison overcrowding, but a deeper debate was needed around pre-trial detention. 

In 2019, there had been a void when torture occurred, the delegation said.  What had happened needed to be known.  Police and armed forces had been told that there were no disciplinary proceedings due to the de facto Government.  Torture, cruel and inhuman or degrading treatment must be investigated.  A number of situations were committed by police, the armed forces, and para police groups.  Disciplinary procedures against 22 police civil servants were underway for excessive use of force over the course of the period from October 20 to November 25, 2019. 

In response to questions about gender-based violence, the delegation said that an increase had been seen in violence since 2013, which had been countered by awareness-raising efforts against violence.  Also, 26 specialised courts on violence against women had been created, while 156 specialised prosecutors had support personnel, including psychologists and social workers to provide comprehensive, holistic care from the moment the claim was received, to ensure there was no repetition of that violence against women. 

César Alidad Siles Bazán, Vice-Minister of Justice and Fundamental Rights and deputy head of the delegation, presenting the report, said that concerning the human rights violations which had taken place during the political and social crisis in 2019 and 2020, Bolivia had found itself with a setting of impunity.  Once the rule of law had been restored, legal actions had been taken against those abusing the exercise of power through acts of torture and inhumane and cruel treatment.  The Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture had visited Bolivia twice, adding that several of its recommendations had been fulfilled, while others were on the way.  As for guaranteeing the health and integrity of people deprived of liberty during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Ministry of Justice was working on a presidential decree for amnesty for humanitarian reasons.  Bolivia was working to reduce preventive detention and overcrowding in penitentiary centres, also due to the COVID-19 situation. 

The delegation of Bolivia consisted of representatives of the Ministry of Justice and Institutional Transparency; the Ministry of Equal Opportunities; Internal Affairs and Policing; the penitentiary system; Citizen Security; and the Permanent Mission of Bolivia to the United Nations Office at Geneva. 

The webcast of the Committee against Torture meetings can be found here.  All meeting summaries can be found here.  Documents and reports related to the Committee against Torture’s seventy-second session can be found here.

The Committee will next meet in public at 5 p.m. on Tuesday, November 30 to discuss follow-up to articles 19 and 22 and reprisals. 

Report

The Committee has before it the third periodic report of Bolivia (CAT/C/BOL/3). 

Presentation of the Report


CÉSAR ALIDAD SILES BAZÁN, Vice-Minister of Justice and Fundamental Rights and deputy head of the delegation, presenting the report, said Bolivia would inform the Committee of the progress it had made in implementing the Convention, which was enshrined in the Constitution of Bolivia and had acquired the status of fundamental rights.  Bolivia had signed all major human rights instruments, including the Convention and its Optional Protocol.  That had led to effective measures to meet the precepts that that international standard provided for.  Bolivian constitutional standards granted constitutional standing to those international instruments and conventions on human rights.  Noting that the Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture had visited Bolivia twice, the Vice-Minister said several of its recommendations had been fulfilled, while others were on the way. 

Among the various measures taken, domestic regulations regarding the criminal definition of torture had been adapted to international standards for the protection of human rights.  Bolivia had tried to work through subsequent modifications, which had been frustrated by the disruption of the constitutional order between 2019 and 2020.  Once democracy was recovered, the Ministry of Justice and Institutional Transparency had been working on adapting that criminal definition to meet the required parameters.  The Ombudsman’s Office was entrusted with presenting the next State report on the work done by the national preventive mechanism, jointly with other institutions in the area. 

As for the human rights violations which had taken place during the political and social crisis in 2019 and 2020, Bolivia had found itself with a setting of impunity. 

Once the rule of law had been restored, legal actions had been taken against those abusing the exercise of power through acts of torture and inhumane and cruel treatment.  The reports of international bodies all agreed and corroborated the idea that massacres had taken place.  Bolivia had received the final report from the Commission of Truth, which had been created to clarify the murders, forced disappearances, torture, arbitrary detentions and sexual violence for political and ideological reasons that took place from 1964 to 1982.  Bolivia was currently following up on recommendations included in the outcome report, published by the Commission of Truth.  The recommendations included legislative reforms, and recommendations on comprehensive reparation measures. 

As for guaranteeing the health and integrity of people deprived of liberty during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Ministry of Justice was working on a presidential decree for amnesty for humanitarian reasons.  Bolivia was working to reduce preventive detention and overcrowding in penitentiary centres, also due to the COVID-19 situation.  Institutions participating in criminal proceedings were trained on matters related to human rights and were updating their knowledge so their staff could provide public services and improve access to justice. 

Questions by Committee Experts

CLAUDE HELLER, Committee Chairperson and Country Rapporteur for Bolivia, welcomed the delegation, noting that the report should have been submitted four years ago, but that circumstances had forced its postponement.  Beginning with article 1 of the Convention, could the delegation provide updated information on the status of the draft bill on reform of the Criminal Code?  Bolivia needed to approve a new law that was in keeping with international standards, including the contents of articles 1 and 4 of the Convention.  

Turning to national human rights institutions, Mr. Heller noted that the Ombudsman’s Office was established in 1994 and complied with the Paris Principles.  Could the delegation comment on measures envisaged to strengthen its functioning and independence?  Could the delegation indicate the number of visits that were made by the Ombudsman’s Office and the Service for the Prevention of Torture?  Mr. Heller noted that the Service for the Prevention of Torture had been created as Bolivia’s national preventive mechanism.  Further on that topic, noting that there was a high number of people in preventive detention, he said that that had led to extreme overcrowding.  Improper prison infrastructure had also been noticed.  Could the delegation comment on reports of reprisals during and after the visit of the Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture? 

Turning to the situation of migrants, refugees, asylum seekers and internally displaced people, Mr. Heller asked the delegation to provide information on legislative or other measures related to international agreements, including the non-refoulement of any person to a country where they would be in danger of being victims of torture.  Were persons subject to an expulsion, refoulement or extradition order informed about the right to asylum and how to use such measures? 

Turning to articles 12 and 13 of the Convention, on investigations and complaints, had Bolivia considered establishing an independent commission to investigate all reports of torture connected to the 2019 elections?  Mr. Heller asked the delegation to provide updated statistical data on the number of reports of torture and ill treatment, including sexual violence and excessive use of force leading to the death of protesters. 

Turning to law enforcement agencies, could the delegation comment on whether specific measures had been taken to ensure that the Bolivian police and armed forces were governed by strictly professional criteria, subordinate to civilian power?  Could the delegation provide information on the number of persons accused, tried and convicted under the counter-terrorism laws in force, and the legal safeguards and appeals available to persons subject to counter-terrorism laws?

On the matter of freedom of expression, Mr. Heller asked the delegation to comment on reports of acts of harassment, including by Government officials, of human rights defenders and journalists which occurred before and after the resignation of former President Evo Morales.  Would the State consider establishing a support and protection mechanism for journalists whose rights might be at risk?

Mr. Heller noted that a presidential decree had been adopted by the Plurinational Legislative Assembly granting a blanket amnesty to people who were subject to criminal trial during the interim.  The decree had raised a number of concerns, and it was believed it had now been repealed.  The Committee was concerned about investigations into acts of violence perpetrated by both law enforcement that was opposed to Evo Morales and his party, and also those acts committed by the socialist alternative movement.  Was Bolivia considering a new amnesty decree to ensure it was not applied arbitrarily?

DIEGO RODRÍGUEZ-PINZÓN, Committee Member and Co-Rapporteur for Bolivia, beginning with fundamental legal safeguards, said the Committee had asked the State party to provide updated information on the measures taken to ensure that detainees enjoyed in practice all fundamental legal safeguards from the moment of their arrest, in particular, the right to be informed of the reasons for their arrest and the charges against them. 

Regarding the right to promptly receive legal counsel, the State indicated that article 9 of the Code of Criminal Procedure set out that all accused persons had the right to a lawyer’s assistance and legal counsel from the first moment of proceedings until the end of the sentence.  Could persons who were arrested benefit from those safeguards at the moment of their arrest, or was it only when proceedings began? 

With regard to the right to notify a person of one's choice of arrest, the Committee had information that persons who had been arrested often did not have access to their relatives for over 72 hours.  Could the delegation provide information about the protocols which law enforcement officers must follow?

Could the delegation inform if there were specific provisions and services that ensured the important right of access to a medical examination from the moment of detention, and not only in prisons?  What measures had been adopted to ensure that law enforcement officers respected fundamental legal safeguards?  The Committee also requested information on the measures taken to ensure high-quality free legal assistance.  What kind of measures were being taken to address problems of the public defence system?

Turning to the issue of gender-based violence, Mr. Rodríguez-Pinzón noted that the Committee had asked the State party to provide updated information on laws or other measures taken during the period under review to combat gender-based violence, in particular with regard to cases in which the State party’s authorities had failed to act, or acted incorrectly, leading to the State party being responsible for failure to implement the Convention.  In general, there had been progress made in the law and public policies in Bolivia to tackle gender-based violence against women, adolescents and girls.  Could the delegation inform the Committee about the opening date of the four shelters that were planned? 

The Committee had also asked the State party to comment on reports that in practice access to safe abortion services was still not granted.  Could the delegation explain to the Committee how Bolivia would guarantee that women could benefit from a safe abortion system, and that abortion and post-abortion health services were included in the public health system?  Did Bolivia contemplate modifying the Criminal Code to address the issue of unsafe abortions?

Turning to human trafficking, Mr. Rodríguez-Pinzón said the Committee was

concerned about the information received that there were acts of corruption by the authorities entrusted with implementing measures in the area of human trafficking.  Did the delegation have data or examples of measures in place, such as disciplinary or criminal investigations in specific cases?

Responses by the Delegation

In response to questions about the definition of torture, the delegation explained that Bolivia was striving to change the criminal definition of torture.  The Criminal Code was already looked at in light of international standards.  Due to protests and strikes, the law had to be approved along with other articles that would allow for expediting processes.  From 2018 to date, in addition to having a draft for the Criminal Code, Bolivia was working on a plan B, which was the approval of an emergency enforcement law for the recommendations of the interdisciplinary group of experts and other international organizations, including the Committee against Torture and the Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture.  The special law had been considered with the Minister of Justice, and it was hoped it would clear the approval process. 

Preventive detention in Bolivia was an exception and could not be the rule.  Jurisdictional authorities had enough tools for them to opt for additional methods for preventive imprisonment and only use it as an exception.  One reason for prison overcrowding was the broad range of preventive detention which existed in prisons.  It was a struggle to modify the Criminal Code, particularly as regards the precautionary measures. 

In response to questions about reducing overcrowding in prisons, reference had been made to prisons which had been visited by the Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture.  Overcrowding had been reduced.  That resulted from presidential decrees on humanitarian grounds, and recommendations from international organizations leading to the publication of presidential decrees.  Political grounds had not been the grounds for release as a result of amnesties.  The COVID-19 pandemic had been one reason for the releases.  Bolivia was trying to resolve the situation of overcrowding, including through regional and national governments creating new prisons.  A prison with poor conditions had been closed down, and the inmates were being transferred to a new prison featuring conditions in line with prison regulations.  When it came to overcrowding, justice officials were working to reduce prison overcrowding, but a deeper debate was needed around pre-trial detention.  Prison administrators needed to be talking to the judiciary.  Certain prisons were supported by new prison facilities in various departments, and there was a final design for the new prison of the San Pedro department.  September 24 had been declared the Day of the Detainee in Bolivia. 

Returning to the issue of overcrowding, the delegation said that during the COVID-19 pandemic, virtual court hearings had been permitted from within prisons, to avoid delays to justice.  Thanks to efforts in conjunction with the judiciary, thousands of hearings had been conducted in 2021, ensuring due process for detainees.  On reported subhuman prison conditions observed by the Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture, the prison directorate had submitted some documentation containing instructions to immediately close down punishment cells, called “dungeons”.  Torture prevention services had provided cooperation, as had the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Red Cross, and they had been visiting prisons and witnessed progress made in the management. 

Those actions were designed to comply with articles of the law, and to protect the constitutional rights and guarantees of detainees.  When the Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture had visited Bolivia, its members had noticed that there was a need for a register of complaints to let detainees complain about possible acts of torture and ill treatment from the security and administrative staff at prisons.  Complaints were resolved by the prison governor, and if there were cases of torture or serious issues, those matters were referred to the courts.  A hotline which was free of charge allowed family members who became aware of any act of torture to report them.  For any inmate fearing repercussions within the prison, the family members could use the independent hotline to the authorities, it did not go to the prison. 

Reactivating the National Human Rights Commission would help a number of victims who had complained about torture and ill treatment.  In 2019, there had been a void when torture occurred.  What had happened needed to be known.  Police and armed forces had been told that there were no disciplinary proceedings due to the de facto Government.  Torture, cruel and inhuman or degrading treatment were not only disciplinary offences, but also ordinary crimes.  They must be investigated.  A number of situations were committed by police, the armed forces, and para police groups.  That was what happened in Cochabamba.  Civilians were working with the public forces, and that was why an independent commission was needed to investigate.  As for safeguarding the right to information, according to the Constitution and criminal proceedings, registers took stock of all detentions in cells in police stations, but there was no single model for those registers.  By the next periodic report, there would be a unified system and statistics as well. 

Questions by the Committee Experts

CLAUDE HELLER, Committee Chairperson and Country Rapporteur for Bolivia, noted that repealing the amnesty decree had been an important step.  It was vital that all serious crimes and human rights violations committed between 2019 and 2020 should be thoroughly investigated.  Another vital issue, which had also been raised by civil society, was reform of the judicial system.  The Committee was concerned about judicial reform in light of events over the last few years, notably in criminal definitions of counter terrorism and rebellion. 

Racism and discrimination, as they related to the Convention, were other important areas.  It seemed as if racism and discrimination were a structural problem permeating Bolivian society, which was reflected in political conflicts. 

The polarisation had brought to the fore trends of stigmatisation of indigenous rural peasants who lived in poverty, that darker skin was identified with the Socialist movement, and that religious ideology was linked to opposition to the Government.  The use of religion during advocacy or rallies played a role in justifying a divine cause in the movement against Evo Morales.  A pattern of inflammatory rhetoric, and acts of violence against indigenous peoples, including women, reflected the fact that there was cultural intolerance.  Could the delegation say whether under current law, such acts had been investigated and prosecuted?  What measures had been taken to address the structural problem in Bolivian society, which had become worse since the period of the interim Government?  A link was seen between racism, political violence, torture and ill treatment.  In that light, what measures was Bolivia planning to address that structural problem?  Noting that it would not be resolved overnight, could the delegation comment on the restoration of the country office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Bolivia?     

DIEGO RODRÍGUEZ-PINZÓN, Committee Member and Co-Rapporteur for Bolivia, thanked the delegation for the presentation yesterday.  When it came to sexual violence, the State party should not just consider violence against the persons, but should also include definitions which encompassed the lack of consent.  Could the delegation explain what protocols must be followed by police officers and other law enforcement officers when they were interviewing suspects and questioning them?  How often was training provided to law enforcement, and how often were they instructed to review those protocols?  Turning to measures taken to improve the living conditions in prison and reduce overcrowding, he noted that the prison population had increased from just over 10,000 in 2007 to 18,500 now, while the prison capacity had increased from 4,700 in 2007 to 6,765 in 2021.  That was a worrying rate of prison overcrowding.  There was also an excessive use of pre-trial detention, making up 64 per cent of detainees.  While noting that progress had been made against overcrowding, and that the prison population had fallen, could the delegation provide detailed and disaggregated information to show how many places had been created in the prison system, and in which prisons, so prison overcrowding had fallen?  While the figures were going in the right direction - which the Committee welcomed - the situation was still of extreme concern with that level of overcrowding.  Was it correct that the budget for prisons would be decreased?

Could the delegation provide information about whether the needs of vulnerable groups of detainees were attended to?  The Committee had been informed about cases of violence against women in detention.  Could the delegation also provide statistical information, including on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex detainees?  What disciplinary sanctions were applied to prisoners?  What measures were taken to ensure practices and laws on solitary confinement were in line with international standards?  The Committee was pleased to hear yesterday that punishment cells had been closed, such as the “dungeons” and others.  Could the delegation provide statistics on the number of deaths in detention, disaggregated by sex, age, ethnic origin and nationality of the deceased? 

Turning to the Truth Commission investigating events between 1964 and 1982, how had its report been disseminated in Bolivia, and which measures were planned for the near future?  Could the delegation provide information about criminal liability of perpetrators of crimes against humanity?  In which cases had the Prosecution Service been able to make progress?  Turning to reparations for victims of torture, could the delegation inform whether it included rehabilitation? 

Responses from the Delegation

The delegation explained that when it came to reform of the justice system, Bolivia was working on the pillar for regulatory modifications, and would also be looking at the recommendations being made by the Committee on abortion and on rape.  A law was being considered which would allow for comprehensive reparations for victims of torture.  Disciplinary procedures against 22 police civil servants were underway for excessive use of force over the course of the period from October 20 to November 25, 2019. 

In response to questions on medical care in penitentiary centres, a modality of care was already set out in a law.  Since the last visit of the Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture, the healthcare component had been improved in prison.  On the topic of health, the COVID-19 pandemic had led to a significant number of deaths.  Over 90 per cent of the prison population had now been vaccinated.  Work done over the past few years with domestic regulations allowed for there to be no self-government in penitentiary centres.  Some order had been brought to that sector, and disciplinary sanctions had been avoided.  Since 2017, the type of sanctions imposed had been regularised to be appropriate and fitting.  Bolivia appreciated the oversight of international organizations working on human rights which could testify to the progress made as new methodologies in the penitentiary system were implemented. 

During the state of emergency due to the COVID-19 pandemic from March to August 2020, there had been 53 feminicides.  An increase had been seen in violence since 2013, which had been countered by awareness-raising efforts against violence.  More and more women now spoke with the authorities about violent relationships.  A 2019 law had broadened the authority of the police and administrative services providing care to victims of violence.  A 2020 Supreme Decree had bolstered the mechanisms for prevention, care and protection of women in situations of violence.  In 2021, the Ministry of Justice and Institutional Transparency had created a national commission to follow up on cases of feminicide, to eliminate impunity for that crime.  Twenty-six specialised courts on violence against women had been created.  There were 156 specialised prosecutors on gender-related crimes, crimes on human trafficking, and juvenile justice.  They had support personnel, including psychologists and social workers to provide comprehensive, holistic care from the moment the claim was received, to ensure there was no repetition of that violence against women. 

In response to questions about the Truth Commission, it had concluded its work and its report had been received.  The Ministerial Department of Justice and Human Rights was establishing responses to the recommendations.  Bolivia was working on building the “house of memory” and the “walls of memory” so events under the dictatorship never reoccurred.  Criminal definitions were also being changed.  A coordinating entity needed to be established to follow up on the recommendations.

Follow-up Questions by a Committee Expert

A Committee Expert noted that under a state of emergency, the normal working of institutions was suspended.  Could the delegation provide more information about the protests in 2019 which had led to a number of deaths and injuries, during which a state of emergency had been declared? 

Follow-up Responses from the Delegation

The delegation explained that Bolivia’s Constitution allowed for a state of emergency to be declared in extreme cases, but what had been declared was a supreme decree which was unconstitutional and arbitrary.  It had allowed the armed forces and Bolivian police to repress the Bolivian people, which had led to deaths, injuries, torture, arbitrary arrest and detention. 

Follow-up Questions by Committee Experts

DIEGO RODRÍGUEZ-PINZÓN, Committee Member and Co-Rapporteur for Bolivia, thanked the delegation for providing statistics on violence against women for the period under review.  There was still a lack of information about what happened at the moment of arrest, as the law provided for eight hours before a person under arrest was brought before a judge.  It was a relatively short period of time, but a lot could happen during those first hours of arrest.  The Committee had noticed that most ill treatment and torture usually occurred in that period, which was why it focused on access to legal counsel, communication with family members, and medical examinations. 

Follow-up Responses from the Delegation

The delegation explained that investigation protocols were limited to implementing an order from a jurisdictional authority.  The disciplinary component was guided by internal regulations. 

Concluding Remarks

CLAUDE HELLER, Committee Chairperson and Country Rapporteur for Bolivia, thanked the delegation for its participation in the dialogue with the Committee, which had allowed the most fundamental points to be addressed.  The delegation could submit additional information to the Committee during the next 48 hours.  The concluding observations were scheduled to be published on 3 December, highlighting priority items. 

CÉSAR ALIDAD SILES BAZÁN, Vice-Minister of Justice and Fundamental Rights and deputy head of the delegation, thanked the Committee for the dialogue.  Bolivia had a close relationship with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and with the presence of the technical mission of the Office of the High Commissioner, progress had been achieved in many areas.  He reiterated the commitment of Bolivia to the work being carried out on the definition of sedition, torture, terrorism and others, such as rape and sexual harassment.  It was important to recall that the National Council for Human Rights would be activated; it would have its same authority and purpose and link with civil society.

Link: https://www.ungeneva.org/fr/news-media/meeting-summary/2021/11/dialogue-bolivia-experts-committee-against-torture-welcome