Bolivia court sentences opposition leader to four months ahead of trial

By Daniel Ramos and Monica Machicao

LA PAZ/SANTA CRUZ, Bolivia (Reuters) - A Bolivian court sentenced right-wing opposition leader Luis Fernando Camacho to four months of pre-trial detention, a day after he was arrested in connection to 2019 social unrest that saw former leftist President Evo Morales flee the country.

Camacho was arrested on Wednesday and taken to the political capital La Paz, sparking protests amid escalating tensions between his wealthy agricultural base in the region of Santa Cruz and the national government.

Camacho, the governor of Santa Cruz, is facing a possible transfer to a high security jail in El Alto.

Prosecutors have charged Camacho with "terrorism" and are also investigating allegations including possible connections to attacks on the president and high-ranking state dignitaries, state prosecutor Omar Mejillones said on Thursday.

"I'll never surrender, this is a fight for democracy and freedom," Camacho, a proponent of greater federalization, said in a statement on his Twitter account. Camacho has said he is innocent of the charges and his lawyer said that he was "unjustly" detained.

His arrest sparked protests in Santa Cruz, with many people waving the regional flag. Civil groups started mobilizing road blockades and a general strike called from 12.00 a.m. (0700 GMT) on Friday morning.

"There are times for peace and times for war," said Keyla Garcia, a congresswomen from Camacho's party who led a rally Thursday, quoting the Bible.

Counter-protesters also came to the streets to demand justice, with people displaying coffins symbolizing victims of the 2019 unrest when Morales fled the country amid protests, some led by Camacho.

"May he go to jail for thirty years. We want justice. I was in the place where they killed the first victim," said Maria Laura, a pro-government protester.

On Thursday, Bolivia's federal prosecutor said they issued the arrest warrant due to the risk Camacho could flee justice or obstruct the investigation, after he repeatedly refused summons related to Morale's coup d'etat case.

Earlier this month, Camacho said he wouldn't give himself to La Paz and called on authorities to "come to my town" if they wanted to jail him.

Camacho, who finished third in the 2020 presidential contest, recently backed extended protests in Santa Cruz demanding the government proceed with a census likely to give his region more tax revenues and seats in Congress.

The state attorney's office has denied claims the arrest was either a kidnapping or politically motivated.

UNEASY CALM

Most governments across the region were largely silent on the issue Thursday, though a spokesperson for the United Nations said Secretary-General Antonio Guterres was concerned by the developments, and calling for calm and restraint.

"He reiterates the importance of adhering to the rule of law and assuring due process and transparency in legal proceedings," the U.N. spokesperson said in a statement.

The United States said it was monitoring the situation, urging a peaceful and democratic resolution.

Former president Morales had said on Wednesday he hoped Camacho's detention would bring justice after three years.

"Luis Fernando Camacho will answer for the coup d'etat that led to robberies, persecutions, arrests and massacres of the de facto government," Morales tweeted.

Former president Carlos Mesa, an ally of Camacho's who ran against Morales in the 2019 election, told Reuters the case stemmed from "a monumental electoral fraud carried out by Evo Morales" and that the terrorism charge "does not make any sense."

Meanwhile, a group of Bolivian lawmakers from Camacho's Creemos party sent a letter to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights calling for precautionary measures to protect Camacho's "safety and integrity."

There was an uneasy calm Thursday in Santa Cruz, where signs of damage were visible after protests Wednesday ended with the prosecutor's headquarters set on fire.

A minister said his house had also been set on fire and robbed, adding Camacho and his allies would be "responsible for anything that might happen" to him or his family.

The federal prosecutor's office said it would seek the "harshest punishment" possible for those responsible for damage in Santa Cruz.

(This story has been corrected to say length of detention is four months, not six, after official clarification)

(Reporting by Daniel Ramos and Monica Machicao in La Paz, Adam Jourdan in Santa Cruz, Kylie Madry and Raul Cortes in Mexico City; Additional reporting by Valentine Hilaire and Sarah Morland in Mexico City, Daphne Psaledakis in Washington and Michelle Nichols at the United Nations; Editing by Brendan O'Boyle, Rosalba O'Brien, Aurora Ellis and Kim Coghill)