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 getting transferred to a high-security prison in Bolivia’s capital, La Paz, as the governor’s lawyers vowed to appeal.
By the time the judge issued his ruling, 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.
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 Wednesday 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 on fire.
Allies of the right-wing opposition leader had characterized the detention as a “kidnapping,” claims that prosecutors rejected.
Protesters also 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,” Florencia Soto Niño-Martínez, a spokesperson for the United Nations chief, said.
Prosecutors allege Camacho orchestrated what they describe as a coup in 2019 following elections that the Organization of American States said were marred by fraud.
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 protests 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 during 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.
Opposition leaders have accused Arce’s administration of using the courts to persecute political opponents.
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.
Politi reported from Buenos Aires, Argentina