Tens of thousands of Bolivians answered an opposition call Monday for protests against the arrest and detention of former president Jeanine Anez on charges of leading a coup d'etat against her socialist predecessor Evo Morales.
Conservative Anez, 53, was placed in pre-trial detention Sunday after she was arrested on charges of terrorism, sedition and conspiracy.
"It wasn't a coup. It was a fraud," read a banner held by one of the protesters who defied the dangers of the coronavirus pandemic to attend marches, sit-ins in front of prosecutor's offices and peaceful gatherings in the capital La Paz and in the cities of Cochabamba, Sucre, Trinidad and Santa Cruz.
In Santa Cruz, the country's economic capital, some 40,000 people assembled in the Christ the Redeemer Square, which has only been the site of right-wing demonstrations in the past.
The arrest brought a rebuke from the Organization of American States (OAS), which on Monday expressed "concern about the abuse of legal mechanisms that once again have been transformed into instruments of repression by the governing party."
"The Bolivian judicial system is not in a position to provide the minimum guarantees of a fair trial," the office of OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro said in a statement.
It called for "the liberation of all those detained in this context, until impartial processes and mechanisms can be put in place to determine responsibilities."
The government of Peru reported that one of Anez's former ministers, Roxana Lizarraga, had asked for asylum in the country.
Following her arrest, Anez tweeted on Sunday: "They are sending me to detention for four months to await a trial for a 'coup' that never happened."
In an indictment seen by AFP, prosecutors had originally asked for Anez and two ministers in her year-long caretaker government to be held for six months as a "precautionary" measure.
Anez came to power in November 2019 after Morales and several senior allies in his Movement for Socialism (MAS) party resigned following weeks of protest at his controversial reelection to an unconstitutional fourth term.
As Morales fled into exile, Anez was the most senior parliamentarian left and was sworn in by Congress as the interim president despite the lack of a quorum, with many MAS legislators boycotting the session.
Morales and his MAS allies then claimed they had been the victims of a coup.
In an interview at that time, Almagro argued that the only coup was committed by Morales in manipulating the various branches of government to allow him to stand for a fourth consecutive term as president in a country whose constitution limits leaders to two successive mandates.
The presidency is now back in the hands of MAS since Luis Arce won last year's general election.
- 'Arbitrary, illegal' -
Anez says she is the victim of political persecution, while the UN, European Union and United States have called for due process to be respected.
The US government said Monday it was "following with concern the developments surrounding the Bolivian government's recent arrest of former officials."
Carlos Mesa, a centrist former Bolivian president, took to Twitter to describe Anez's detention as "arbitrary, illegal, and a violation of her human rights."
Anez has sent letters to the EU and the OAS asking them to send observers to Bolivia.
Morales, the country's first indigenous head of state, was himself the target of sedition and terrorism charges in an investigation opened shortly after Anez took power.
But he returned from exile last November following Arce's landslide victory in October's election.
Following his departure, Morales branded Anez "a coup-mongering right-wing senator."
He said Anez had "declared herself... interim president without a legislative quorum, surrounded by a group of accomplices."
Last month, Congress voted to give amnesty to those prosecuted during Anez's presidency for acts of violence during the chaos that followed Morales' resignation.
Also arrested on Saturday were Anez's former energy minister Rodrigo Guzman and his justice counterpart Alvaro Coimbra.
The 17-page indictment said the arrests were part of an investigation into a conspiracy to carry out "an alleged coup d'etat" starting three days after the 2019 elections.
The document lists Anez and five former ministers, as well as police and military chiefs.
On Sunday, right-wing civilian activist Yassir Molina, whom the government said led a group participating in the 2019 protests against Morales, was also arrested.
Justice Minister Ivan Lima insisted on Saturday that the legal system was independent from the government.
"What we're looking for is not four months' detention, what we're looking for is 30 years because there were bloody massacres" during the protests that followed Morales's resignation, Lima said.