Protesters have clashed with police in Bolivia’s largest city after a court sentenced a key opposition leader to four months in pre-trial detention on terrorism charges.
Several hundred demonstrators threw rocks and firecrackers at a police building and burned tires in downtown Santa Cruz on Friday evening. Riot police fired tear gas and made at least four arrests.
Earlier in the day, largely peaceful groups had protested by blocking roads with tires, rocks and flags strung across streets.
The violence erupted after a judge sentenced opposition leader Luis Fernando Camacho to four months in pre-trial detention amid growing tension in the country.
Judge Sergio Pacheco ordered Camacho, governor of the country’s Santa Cruz region, to be remanded in custody on charges of terrorism. Camacho was transferred to a prison 25km (15 miles) from the capital city of La Paz shortly after.
Speaking during the virtual hearing, held in the La Paz police station, Camacho struck a defiant note stating he would “never give up on this fight for Bolivia’s democracy”.
Prosecutors have alleged that Camacho played a key role in Bolivia’s political unrest after the elections in 2019, which resulted in the forced removal of leftist President Evo Morales, which some had described his as a right-wing coup.
Groups such as the Organization of American States (OAS) alleged those elections were riddled with fraud. Thousands took to the streets in protests that killed 37 people and resulted in the installation of right-wing Jeanine Anez as interim president.
Morales was the first member of Bolivia’s large Indigenous community to become president. Following his removal, some Indigenous people feared setbacks for their rights and accused Anez of racism.
Subsequent investigations have cast doubt on the claims of fraud used to justify Anez’s installation. Morales’s Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) party won a resounding victory in the 2020 elections, elevating MAS candidate Luis Arce to the presidency.
Divisions have persisted since. While Morales and his allies have said Camacho’s arrest is a step towards accountability for what they describe as a violent coup, members of the opposition have accused the administration of using the courts to suppress dissent.
Deysi Choque, a politician with the MAS, called the ruling “an act of justice for the victims who still cry over their loved ones who died in the coup”.
Former President Carlos Mesa took to social media to decry what he called “the violent and illegal kidnapping” of Camacho.
Tensions were already high, with protests breaking out in November in the Santa Cruz region over the government’s decision to delay the census until 2024.
Members of the conservative opposition have said the delay was politically motivated, predicting that the census would have resulted in greater representation and tax revenue for the region – a bastion of the conservative opposition.
The government has cited complications stemming from COVID-19, incorporating Bolivia’s Indigenous languages and the fact many labourers travel in November for the sugar cane harvest.
Camacho was jailed after he refused to appear before prosecutors to answer questions and is accused of helping lead a 36-day strike in Santa Cruz against the government.
A spokesperson for United Nations chief, Antonio Guterres, has said he is concerned about the situation in Bolivia and has called for “all political and social actors to exercise maximum restraint”.