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Bolivia judge orders pre-trial detention for opposition head

Allies of the right-wing opposition leader have characterized the detention as a “kidnapping,” claims that prosecutors rejected.

LA PAZ, Bolivia (AP) — A judge in Bolivia sentenced opposition leader Luis Fernando Camacho to four months of pretrial detention on terrorism charges early Friday, a move that is bound to increase divisions and unrest in the country.

After a virtual hearing that lasted more than seven hours, Judge Sergio Pacheco ordered Camacho, who is also the governor of the Santa Cruz region, to be remanded in custody, agreeing with prosecutors that he was a flight risk and could obstruct an ongoing investigation.

Shortly after the ruling, video showed Camacho being transferred to Chonchocoro, a high-security prison some 25 kilometers (15 miles) from the capital of La Paz as his lawyers vowed to appeal.

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The governor was taken into custody Wednesday and is isolated from the rest of the prisoners at Chonchocoro, where the country usually imprisons the criminals it deems to be the most dangerous.

Prosecutors allege Camacho in 2019 orchestrated what they describe as a coup while leading mass protests following elections that the Organization of American States said were marred by fraud.

By the time the judge issued his ruling Friday, a 24-hour strike called for by Camacho’s allies in Santa Cruz had started and road blockades were set up throughout the wealthy region that is widely considered to be Bolivia’s economic engine.

Santa Cruz, an agribusiness center in the eastern lowlands that is a bastion of the opposition, was isolated from the rest of the country Friday due to the roadblocks but, as of early afternoon, the strike was peaceful.

Rómulo Calvo, the head of the powerful Civic Committee of Santa Cruz, which called for Friday's strike, said they would soon decide more actions to protest Camacho's detention.

The judge rejected claims by Camacho’s lawyers that the governor's detention was illegal.

“I’ll never give up on this fight for Bolivia’s democracy,” Camacho said during the virtual hearing that took place while he was held in a jail cell at a La Paz police station. “To the Bolivian people I say, we can’t let them impose a dictatorship like in Venezuela and Cuba.”

Camacho, leader of the opposition alliance Creemos (“We Believe”), was detained on terrorism charges and taken to La Paz, a move that sparked protests that led to clashes with law enforcement and several public offices and cars being set on fire. A minister in President Luis Arce's administration also said his house was set alight.

Allies of the right-wing opposition leader had characterized the detention as a “kidnapping,” claims that prosecutors rejected.

Other protesters took to the streets celebrating Camacho’s arrest, calling it a key step to get justice for the victims of the 2019 political unrest that led to the resignation of then-President Evo Morales.

As tensions rose in Bolivia, a spokesperson for U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said he was “concerned” about the situation in the South American country.

“He calls for calm and appeals to all political and social actors to exercise maximum restraint. He reiterates the importance of adhering to the rule of law and assuring due process and transparency in legal proceedings,” said Florencia Soto Niño-Martínez, a spokesperson for the United Nations chief.

Morales, who leads the ruling left-wing Movimiento al Socialismo (Movement Toward Socialism), praised Camacho’s detention and said “the courts should also indict Camacho’s accomplices, so these coup efforts won’t ever be repeated.”

Camacho was detained for his repeated failure to appear for questioning by prosecutors, saying he was the victim of political persecution and did not have guarantees of fair treatment.

The opposition has long disputed the government’s characterization of the 2019 unrest as a coup and instead argues that the events were legitimate political protests.

During the more than 20 days of protests, 37 people were killed in the streets amid a process that led to the installation as interim president of Jeanine Áñez, who is currently facing a 10-year prison sentence. Several opposition and military leaders are also behind bars and facing terrorism charges.

The judge's decision to remand Camacho in custody “is an act of justice for the victims who still cry over their loved ones who died in the coup,” said Deisy Choque, a lawmaker with the ruling Movimiento al Socialismo party.

Opposition leaders have accused Arce’s administration of using the courts to persecute political opponents.

“The violent and illegal kidnapping of Gov. Camacho is outrageous. It violates all constitutional principles and shows that the government has decided to continue persecuting opposition leaders through a judicial facade,” former President Carlos Mesa wrote on social media.

The Bolivian Episcopal Conference also spoke out against Camacho’s detention, characterizing it as a “kidnapping with unprecedented violence.”

The leaders of the country’s Catholic Church went on to say that the 2019 coup “never existed and is the result of a false narrative and half-truths” when in reality there was “a peaceful rising up of Santa Cruz’s population when faced with the evident electoral fraud.”

Camacho faces numerous accusations of wrongdoing, including for his role in leading a 36-day strike in Santa Cruz against the government this fall. The action demanded taking a national census in 2023 that would likely give Santa Cruz more tax revenue and seats in Congress, and therefore more influence in the country’s political decisions.

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By CARLOS VALDEZ and DANIEL POLITI Associated Press

Politi reported from Buenos Aires, Argentina.

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