Bolivia's highest court on Tuesday convicted five former top military commanders of genocide for an army crackdown on riots in October 2003 that killed at least 64 civilians. It gave them prison sentences ranging from 10 to 15 years.
In a unanimous decision, the six judges of the Supreme Tribunal 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 they provoked. Carlos Sanchez Berzain, the then-defense minister, also was indicted but not tried. Bolivian law prohibits trials in absentia and both men live in the United States.
A lawyer for Sanchez de Lozada issued a statement calling Bolivia's justice system highly politicized and saying that "no objective observer" can take the sentences seriously.
"Plainly, the Bolivian judiciary was used here as a political tool," said the statement by attorney Ana Reyes.
The 2003 protests and crackdown, in what has become known as "Black October," was a turning point in Bolivian politics: The country's discredited traditional political parties collapsed and Evo Morales, one of the protest leaders, won the presidency two years later.
The unrest was initially sparked by a government plan to export natural gas from this poor, landlocked South American nation through a proposed pipeline to Chile. It quickly set off protests by the largely Aymara Indian population of La Paz's satellite city, El Alto, which vented centuries of anger over poverty and political marginalization.
Sanchez de Lozada, whose indictment was authorized 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, the capital, 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 5-year-old son, Alex Llusco, was killed by a bullet in the head when he went onto their porch to watch the protests. He was the youngest victim.
Families of victims erupted in tears when the verdict was announced Tuesday at a brief public hearing in Sucre, where the court sits. Many had held 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 labor minister.
Sanchez de Lozada, who lives in a Washington suburb, has long argued that the unrest was instigated by "narco-unionism," a slap at Morales, who was a coca growers union leader and congressman at the time.
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, testified during the trial that Bolivia faced "an armed insurrection to destabilize the government" when the crackdown occurred.
Rocabado, who received a 10-year sentence, 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 U.S. State Department did not immediately respond Tuesday to an Associated Press query on the status of that request.
Relations between the two nations are strained. Bolivia expelled the U.S. ambassador and Drug Enforcement Administration agents in late 2008, accusing them of conspiring with Morales' political opponents.
Associated Press writer Frank Bajak in Lima, Peru, contributed to this report.