Bolivia calls on ICC to investigate Morales over blockades

FILE - In this Feb. 21, 2020 file photo, Bolivia's ousted, former President Evo Morales gives a press conference regarding the rejection of his plan to run for Senator in Buenos Aires, where he is living, in Argentina. On Monday, Sept. 7, 2020, a Bolivian court blocked Morales from seeking a senate seat in the countrys October elections, arguing that the ex-leader, living in Argentina, doesnt meet residency requirements. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko, File) (Natacha Pisarenko, Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

THE HAGUE – The chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court said Wednesday that Bolivia has asked her to investigate whether former President Evo Morales and his supporters committed crimes against humanity by setting up roadblocks aimed at preventing people in one of Latin America's poorest nations from accessing vital health care during the coronavirus pandemic.

In a written referral to the court filed last Friday, Bolivia argues that Morales and his top supporters incited blockades in August that had “the direct consequence of causing the death of several people and anxiety in the rest of the population" about not being able to access health care and medical oxygen, the court said in a statement.

The request by Bolivia comes amid unrest that erupted after Bolivia's Supreme Electoral Tribunal postponed elections from Sept. 6 to Oct. 18 following warnings from medical experts that it would be unsafe to hold the election while the pandemic wasn't yet under control. It was the third time the vote has been delayed, angering protesters who accuse the government of interim President Jeanine Áñez of simply trying to cling to power.

After 14 years in power, Morales resigned under pressure from the military and police on Nov. 10 amid widespread protests and disturbances alleging he was attempting to fraudulently claim reelection. He went into exile, first in Mexico and later in Argentina.

Morales was the country's first Indigenous president and remains a powerful influence in the country. His party, the Movement Toward Socialism, controls the congress.

In its written referral to the court, Bolivia says that “road blockades lasted 9 days in which more than 40 people died deprived of medical supplies and medical oxygen, due to the impossibility of movement of these supplies.”

It alleges that Morales and his senior supporters committed the crime against humanity of inhumane acts “intentionally causing great suffering, or serious injury to body or to mental or physical health.”

In Bolivia, a member of Morales' party said the court will either approve or deny the referral.

“In addition, the government is also responsible for the massacre in November's protests and doesn't say anything,” lawmaker Sergio Choque said.

The referral of a case by Bolivia’s rulers doesn't automatically trigger an investigation by the Hague-based global court, but it does mean that should Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda decide to open a formal probe, she does not first need to seek clearance from the court’s judges.

Prosecutors will weigh whether they have jurisdiction and whether the case is admissible under the court's rules before deciding whether to launch an investigation.

The International Criminal Court was established in 2002 to bring to justice perpetrators of crimes against humanity, war crimes, genocide and the international crime of aggression when other countries are unable or unwilling to prosecute them.

It has faced fierce criticism from the United States in recent months, with the Trump administration imposing sanctions this month on Bensouda and one of her top aides for continuing to investigate war crimes allegations against Americans. The sanctions were immediately denounced by the court, the United Nations and human rights advocates.