Source: Sunday Times (UK)
Pubdate: 28 Jun 1998
Author: Fiona Adams


La Paz

SHE was a familiar sight at the University of San Andres in La Paz: a
popular British anthropologist with huge glasses, greying hair in
indigenous-style plaits and a wad of coca in her cheek.

Alison Spedding, 36, a respected academic and novelist with degrees from
Cambridge and the London School of Economics, has fought a long battle for
the rights of Bolivia's coca-growing peasants to live off their crop. Her
refusal to conform to the country's official stance on drugs, however, has
now landed her in a maximum-security jail high in the Andes mountains -
facing a 25-year prison sentence for trafficking and criminal association.

Sitting cross-legged on the floor of the bare cell she shares with six
other women and two of their young children, she freely admitted to The
Sunday Times last week that she was caught red-handed with 2kg of marijuana
in her flat when anti-narcotics forces arrested her on March 30.

"Of course I believe in the legalisation of marijuana," she said.
"Actually, I believe in the legalisation of everything." However, she
vehemently denied the Bolivian authorities' accusations that she sold drugs
to her students.

Looking pale and thin, she described her treatment in the anti-narcotics
squad headquarters as "little short of abominable". She was interrogated
there for 18 days, shortly after being released from hospital after an
ectopic pregnancy. "We were fed the police leftovers, if there were any."
She said she desperately needed medicine, which the prison authorities were
denying her. She was diagnosed as suffering from 55 different parasites and
possible typhoid before her arrest.

Food is also scarce: sweet tea and bread constitute breakfast and supper.
Soup and potatoes serve as lunch. Food is rationed to 20p-worth per day per

Spedding, who has worked in Bolivia since 1985, shrugs off the
high-altitude cold - "I survived winters in Cambridge with no central
heating" - but is distraught at the loss of her anthropological work. Her
computers, field notes and back-up disks from research during the past 10
years have been confiscated as "ill-gotten gains", and she fears they have
gone for good. A controversial figure who has published award-winning short
stories in Spanish, Spedding has long attracted attention in La Paz and the
small sub-tropical town of Chulumani, where she has been carrying out
anthropological research on the Aymara Indian culture and traditional uses
of the coca leaf.

Her arrest has prompted many letters of support from fellow academics
appealing for her release, and a campaign to raise funds for her defence.

Olivia Harris, who taught her at Cambridge, described her this weekend as
"a fine researcher, who had very much taken the Aymara cause upon herself".
She ridiculed the idea that Spedding could have been a drug trafficker.

Last week Spedding's students also declared their support. "Everyone wanted
Alison as their tutor," said Ivan Berrios, one of her pupils at San Andres.
"She was a little strange - sometimes she came to classes in indigenous
dress - but the students admired her for her academic abilities." He and
other students have asked the university dean for permission to continue
lectures with her in the prison.

"We all knew she smoked," said another of her students. "But lots of people
at the university smoke marijuana - it's no big deal."

Leonardo Arteaga, Spedding's third lawyer so far, said he hoped for a four
to five-year sentence, with possible parole after two and a half years,
instead of the maximum penalty. Unfortunately for Spedding, who was brought
up in Maidenhead and Reading, Berkshire, sentencing in Bolivia can be a
very random process.

Copyright 1998 Times Newspapers Ltd.

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Checked-by: Mike Gogulski