Bolivian bishops decry growing political persecution as ex-interim president arrested

Jeanine Áñez, then-interim president of Bolivia, in La Paz, Nov. 18, 2019. Áñez was arrested March 13, 2021, on charges of terrorism, sedition, and conspiracy. Credit: Radoslaw Czajkowski/Shutterstock

La Paz, Bolivia, Mar 17, 2021 / 10:04 am (CNA).- The Bolivian Bishops’ Conference has denounced the arrest of the former interim president of the country, Jeanine Áñez, on charges of terrorism, sedition, and conspiracy, and called on the new government to “desist from total control of power, revenge and persecution.”

Áñez, the vice-president of the Senate, became interim president following the constitutional order of succession to the presidency when Evo Morales, then-president of Bolivia, fled the country in November 2019 after weeks of protest regarding a disputed election.

According to the electoral commission Morales won on the October 2019 election’s first round, but the opposition claimed fraud. The Organization of American States said Nov. 10, 2019 that there was “clear manipulation” in the election, and that it was statistically improbable that Morales had won by the margin needed to avoid a runoff.

Within hours of the OAS report, Morales resigned, after being encouraged to do so by the head of the Bolivian armed forces. He fled to Mexico, receiving asylum there, and then in Argentina.

Áñez served as interim president for one year until new presidential elections were held in which Luis Arce, a member of the Movement for Socialism, won the presidency.

During Áñez’s administration, the political crisis worsened and, when the coronavirus pandemic hit, the country was plunged into an economic crisis.

Morales returned to the country Nov. 11, 2020, the first day of the Arce administration, and Áñez was arrested March 12 by order of the Bolivian Prosecutor’s Office.

Along with Áñez, the former interim Minister of Energy, Álvaro Guzmán Collao, and the former temporary Minister of Justice, Álvaro Coímbra Cornejo, were arrested. There is also an arrest warrant out for other members of the Áñez administration, military leaders, and police chiefs.

Considered a flight risk, the former interim president will spend four months in preventive detention in the Obrajes women’s prison awaiting trial. She is accused of terrorism, sedition, and conspiracy, which allegedly led to the removal of Morales from power.

The Bolivian Bishops’ Conference stated March 13 that “the arrest and prosecution” of Áñez, “without taking into account minimum constitutional guarantees, not even the presumption of innocence, confirms the course of action that, unfortunately, we have seen in the judicial system, which lets some people go unpunished and criminalizes others, depending on the government in power at any given time.”

According to the New York Times, “both Mr. Morales and Ms. Añez used the judiciary to go after their critics.”

The bishops demanded “the immediate release of those arrested” in order to uphold “internationally recognized fundamental rights.”

“We cannot keep silent in the face of the increasing political persecution, which recalls sad moments in history, and which does not build up trust, peace and reconciliation among all Bolivians. We cannot remain passive while citizens who have served Bolivia, with their limitations, in difficult moments in its history and sought ways to restore peace, are being persecuted,” the bishops said.

The conference warned, “democracy only exists if an independent judicial system is respected and is not subjected to the political interests of the government in power. Democracy is respect for the truth. You cannot create a false account of history, inventing the truth and manipulating the conscience of Bolivians.”

The conference urged “the government authorities to work for progress in Bolivia, for justice, truth and reconciliation among all Bolivians.”

“The politics of revenge and rancor and a judicial system dependent on those in power, do not create trust in the people and will harm us all, sooner or later.”

“We call on everyone to reflect and help our people to look to the future with hope in achieving a country of reconciliation and peace for all Bolivians and we ask the officials of the Plurinational State to desist from total control of power, from revenge and persecution,” the bishops’ statement concluded.

Bishop Eugenio Coter, Vicar Apostolic of Pando, stated that the situation is troubling “because the rights of a person, who may have made mistakes, but who was recognized by the Bolivian congress itself as president, are being trampled on.”

“The current president himself (Luis Arce) recognized that (Áñez) was president in constitutional succession.”

“It’s a lack of respect for our intelligence, it’s a lack of honesty in the face of history, it is a lack of consistency in the face of their own words and of the institutions that they themselves (controlled) because they were the ones who accepted the resignation of the previous president (Morales),” Bishop Coter pointed out.

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