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Peruvians protest, await ruling on ex-president’s detention

Protesters have burned police stations, taken over an airstrip used by the armed forces and invaded the runway of the international airport in Arequipa, a gateway to some of Peru’s tourist attractions.

LIMA, Peru (AP) — Protests disrupting tourism and trade persisted across Peru Thursday as a judge considered whether to keep the country’s ex-president in custody while authorities build their case against him for inciting a rebellion.

The decision on whether to detain former President Pedro Castillo for up to 18 months comes after the government on Wednesday declared a police state in an effort to calm the protests, which have led to at least eight deaths.

Castillo's supporters began protesting last week after he was removed from power and taken into custody following his attempt to dissolve Congress ahead of an impeachment vote. The latest political crisis has only deepened the instability gripping the country, with six presidents coming and going in as many years.

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Peru’s Supreme Prosecutor Alcides Chinchay said in court Thursday that Castillo faces at least 10 years in prison for the rebellion charge.

While the country awaited a ruling on the fate of Castillo, a large group of protesters — and police in riot gear — gathered in central Lima Thursday evening.

Protesters are demanding Castillo’s freedom, the resignation of President Dina Boluarte, and the immediate scheduling of general elections to pick a new president and members of Congress. They have burned police stations, taken over an airstrip used by the armed forces and invaded the runway of the international airport in Arequipa, a gateway to some of Peru’s tourist attractions.

Thousands of tourists have been affected by the protests. The passenger train that carries visitors to Machu Picchu suspended service, and roadblocks on the Pan-American Highway stranded trailer trucks for days, spoiling food bound for the capital.

In Cusco, a top tourist destination, people were stuck Thursday at hotels and the airport. Among them are 20 citizens of Ecuador, according to a statement from that country’s foreign affairs ministry.

“I was about to return to Ecuador on Monday, and unfortunately, they told us that all flights were canceled due to the protests,” said Karen Marcillo, 28, who has had to sleep at the Teniente Alejandro Velasco Astete airport in Cusco. Peru's tourism industry is still recovering from the effects of the pandemic, which reduced visitations last year to 400,000, down from 4.4 million in 2019.

The virtual hearing on Castillo's detention took place even though he refused to be served with a notification. In his absence, Castillo was represented by a public defender because he and his legal team refused to participate, arguing the hearing lacked “minimum guarantees.”

While in office, Castillo spent much of his time defending himself against attacks from an adversarial Congress and investigations ranging from corruption to plagiarism. Now, it remains unclear whether Boluarte — once his running mate and vice president — will get a chance to govern. Just like Castillo, she is a newcomer to politics without a base in Congress.

“She’s doing a good job right now for the moment,” said Cynthia McClintock, a political science professor at George Washington University who has studied Peru extensively. "But it’s a big challenge.”

While some protesters “seem to want kind of instability at any cost,” McClintock said, others saw his ouster as an opening to express simmering grievances, such as deep inequality, poverty and lack of public services.

Boluarte though may be given some breathing room by lawmakers seeking to keep their jobs. They cannot pursue re-election and would be jobless if a general election for Congress is scheduled, as protesters want.

Boluarte on Wednesday sought to placate protesters by saying general elections could potentially be scheduled for December 2023, four months earlier than the timing she had proposed to Congress just a few days earlier.

All of the protest-related deaths have occurred in rural, impoverished communities outside Lima that are strongholds for Castillo, a political neophyte and former schoolteacher from a poor Andean mountain district.

In Andahuaylas, where at least four people have died since the demonstrations began, no soldiers were on the streets Thursday despite the government declaration allowing the armed forces to help maintain public order.

Some grocery store owners there were cleaning the roads littered with rocks and burned tires, but they planned to close their doors because of the expected protests led by people from nearby rural communities.

Judge Cesar San Martin Castro’s expected decision on Castillo's detention comes after Congress stripped him of the privilege that keeps presidents from facing criminal charges.

Castillo's attempt to dissolve Congress came ahead of lawmakers' third attempt to impeach him since he was elected in July 2021. After Congress voted him out of power, Castillo's vehicle was intercepted as he traveled through Lima’s streets with his security detail.

Chinchay, the government's top prosecutor, insisted Castillo is a flight risk, saying he was trying to reach the Mexican embassy to seek asylum after he left the presidential palace. He quoted remarks from Mexico's president and foreign affairs minister indicating Mexico was open to granting asylum.

“We do not believe that he wanted to go to the Mexican embassy to have tea,” Chinchay said.

Castillo's public defender, Italo Díaz, rejected that the former president is a flight risk. He told the judge Castillo's children and wife depend on him and he could return to his teaching job if freed.

The state of emergency declaration suspends the rights of assembly and freedom of movement and empowers the police, supported by the military, to search people’s homes without permission or judicial order.

Defense Minister Luis Otarola Peñaranda said the declaration was agreed to by the council of ministers.

On Wednesday, Boluarte pleaded for calm as demonstrations continued against her and Congress.

“Peru cannot overflow with blood,” she said.

In a handwritten letter shared Wednesday with The Associated Press by his associate Mauro Gonzales, Castillo asked the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to intercede for his “rights and the rights of my Peruvian brothers who cry out for justice.” The commission investigates allegations of human rights violations and litigates them in some cases.

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By REGINA GARCIA CANO Associated Press

Associated Press writers Franklin Briceño in Andahuaylas, Peru, David Pereda in Lima and Gonzalo Solano in Quito, Ecuador, contributed to this report.

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