A Canadian citizen in Bolivia, the mayor of a small town, has been accused of organizing protests demanding a free and fair general election and charged with terrorism, sedition, and crimes against public health.
Juan Téllez, the mayor of Betanzos in southern Bolivia, was one of over a dozen leaders presented with the charges last week, according to Téllez himself, his daughter in Canada, and activists on the ground. VICE News has seen a copy of the summons that outlines the charges. As of publishing, the Bolivian government had not responded to a request for comment.
While the charges remain vague, Téllez is being accused of organizing and financing mass blockades that took place throughout August across Bolivia, where thousands of people demanded free and fair presidential elections.
Téllez denies the accusations, saying his case is part of the current government’s crackdown on opposition leaders in the Movement for Socialism (MAS) party, of which he is a part of. Téllez’s phone was confiscated by state authorities and he has not received details of the charges.
“(Mine) is not an isolated case,” he told VICE News. “It has been a practice over the last nine months of the interim government.”
Bolivia’s interim government, headed by Jeanine Áñez, took over in November 2019 after the former president, Evo Morales, of the MAS party, was ousted by the military over allegations of electoral fraud, which have since been disputed. Bolivia’s presidential election, originally to have taken place this May, has been postponed for the third time until October 18, with the pandemic cited as the reason.
The military has been “ramping up persecution of members of the MAS party…to stop (their) participation” in the election, Téllez’s daughter, Christina Téllez, in Halifax, Canada, told VICE News.
Since the interim government’s takeover, state repression has been rampant, with organizations such as the UNHCR and the Harvard International Human Rights Clinic documenting evidence of human rights violations. MAS party leaders and officials have been particular targets, with over 600 being investigated in the past few months, some simply for their tweets.
“What's happening here with the political persecution of Juan and other colleagues is not legal in Bolivia, it's not legal in Canada, and it's a direct violation of international human rights and due process norms,” Kathy Ledebur, in Cochabamba, Bolivia, of the Andean Information Network, told VICE News.
According to Ledebur, the blockades are not illegal. Bolivia’s penal code contains no section explicitly outlawing them.
“There's a movement of criminalization of social protests by this authoritarian government, although their supporters blockaded roads for three weeks after the presidential elections that were overturned,” said Ledebur.
Téllez said the current climate in Bolivia reminds him of Bolivia’s 18-year military dictatorship from 1964 to 1982.
“At that time, what they did (was) they built up a list of leaders, unionists…that were against the military government,” he said. “Whenever there was a mobilization, (they persecuted those) on this list.”
Ledebur recounted the same: “There has been nothing this violent since the return of democracy,” she said. “There's no rules, there's no recourse, there's no justice.”
Christina Téllez is worried her father could be detained at any time. She’s also concerned that as an insulin-dependent diabetic he may not get the medicine he needs if imprisoned, or that his detention in cramped prisons could prove fatal due to COVID-19.
Ledebur said the Canadian government has a responsibility to follow Téllez’s case to ensure his due process rights as a citizen are guaranteed.
Téllez immigrated to Halifax, Canada in 1990, and worked with a number of community development organizations. He was also a professor at Halifax’s Saint Mary’s University. After years of travelling back and forth, he was elected mayor of Betanzos in 2015 once he decided to make a permanent move to Bolivia, to be able to contribute to his home country's development.
According to a written statement from the Téllez family on Tuesday, “Global Affairs Canada in Ottawa and the Canadian Consul to Bolivia in La Paz have a file open on Juan’s case and have been in direct contact with him and the family.” In an email to VICE News, Global Affairs Canada confirmed it was in touch with Téllez’s family and said that consular officials are “closely monitoring the situation.”
Christina Téllez is imploring the Canadian government to reanalyze its relationship with Bolivia, support it gave to the interim government under the pretence of free and fair elections.
Correction: An earlier version of this story said that Téllez did not receive a copy of the summons. He had received a copy, but has not been given details of the charges.
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