Bolivia’s socialist government has arrested former interim president Jeanine Añez and issued warrants for several key members of her administration on charges of terrorism, a move the opposition and a human rights group said were unjustified and smacked of political persecution.

The move has heightened political tension between the ruling Movement towards Socialism (MAS) party of indigenous leader Evo Morales and its opponents from across the political spectrum in the impoverished Andean mining nation.

Interior minister Eduardo Castillo announced on Saturday that Añez had been detained by police and congratulated officers on what he termed “this great and historic task of giving justice to the Bolivia people”. Two former ministers were also taken into custody.

Jose Miguel Vivanco, Americas head at Human Rights Watch, said the arrest warrants against Añez and her ministers contained no evidence that they had committed terrorist crimes. “For that reason, they raise justified doubts that this is a process based on political motives,” he said.

The arrests relate to events late in 2019 when Morales fled the landlocked country amid mass protests after trying to win a fourth consecutive term in power in an election tainted by what the Organisation of American States and the EU determined were serious irregularities.

Añez, then a conservative provincial senator, was next in the constitutional line of succession because the vice-president to Morales and the head of the senate had resigned alongside him, meaning she was hastily sworn in to head a caretaker government recognised by the EU and the US.

Añez’s government was heavily criticised by rights groups while she was in power for seeking the arrest of Morales on accusations of terrorism after he fled the country. The charges were dropped shortly after MAS returned to power last year.

Morales and MAS never accepted that the election was fraudulent and described the events of November 2019 as a “coup d’état” promoted by reactionaries and the military with the support of Washington.

Clumsy moves by the interim government, including mishandling the pandemic and exceeding its mandate as a caretaker administration by pursuing Morales and some of his officials, led to a landslide victory for MAS candidate Luis Arce in presidential elections last year.

Since returning to power, MAS has been cracking down on opponents and Friday’s arrests, as well as warrants seeking the detention of the former heads of the police and the armed forces, suggest that the government now wants to punish all those connected with the interim administration.

“A lie has been invented, an alternative reality, a supposed and non-existent coup d’état to generate political persecution, to destroy opponents and to install the lie inside and outside the country that there was a coup d’état when what there was in fact was a gigantic fraud, a great electoral crime,” said former opposition presidential candidate Carlos Mesa.

In a tweet shortly before her arrest, Añez said: “The MAS has decided to return to the methods of dictatorship. A pity, because Bolivia doesn’t need dictators, it needs freedom.”

The country, long troubled by political instability, is sharply divided between MAS supporters, concentrated in poorer rural and mountainous areas, and the opposition, whose supporters hail mainly from the cities and the wealthier lowlands.

MAS failed to win any of the four biggest cities in local elections last weekend, when it lost control of longtime stronghold El Alto, just outside the city of La Paz, to a former senior MAS official who had quit the party.

“There’s a sense of sadness that it’s got to this point,” said one diplomat in La Paz. “The MAS were at a fork in the road when Arce was elected last year. They could have chosen to rule like a normal government and tolerate some opposition. But they seem to have chosen to go down the Evo route of not tolerating any opposition at all. If you’ve won a democratic victory, why do you need to do this?”



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