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Bolivia sentences ex-president to 10 years in prison after coup trial

Bolivia's former interim president Jeanine Áñez in 2019. (Natacha Pisarenko/AP)
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Bolivia’s former interim president, Jeanine Áñez, was convicted late Friday of leading an alleged coup that deposed her left-wing predecessor, and she was sentenced to 10 years in prison after a closely watched trial.

Áñez, a conservative whose presidency was backed by the Trump administration, came to power after a political crisis in 2019. She replaced socialist President Evo Morales, who fled into exile amid protests over his attempt to serve a fourth consecutive term, after an election that critics said was marred by fraud.

In the absence of Morales and other top leaders from his Movement for Socialism, Áñez — then vice president of the Bolivian Senate — declared herself the nation’s interim president and was soon recognized by the United States.

On Friday, a Bolivian court convicted the 54-year-old Áñez of violating the constitution and of dereliction of duty. The verdict against the polarizing figure, in a trial that tested the politically volatile South American nation, has raised concerns about political interference in the country’s weak justice system. But the verdict was also met with praise from critics who accused Áñez of staging a coup and presiding over systematic human rights violations.

Áñez has denied all wrongdoing and said she plans to appeal.

“I have been accused of crimes that I have not committed, that were invented,” she testified Friday. “I had the government, but I never had power. … It was simply a transitional government.”

Áñez left office after Luis Arce, who had been Morales’s finance minister, won the presidency in a landslide in late 2020. Áñez dropped out of that race when polls showed her trailing badly. She has been in detention for about a year.

When Áñez first took power, she promised to be a caretaker leader with a focus on organizing new elections. But the Morales critic swiftly began leaving her conservative mark. She replaced Bolivia’s top military brass, Morales’s cabinet ministers and heads of major state-owned enterprises within days of taking office. Her government also jailed and prosecuted many left-wing critics and was accused of enacting the “politics of revenge.”

The Organization of American States’ human rights watchdog has reported evidence of “massacres,” “systematic torture” and “summary executions” by security forces under Áñez’s interim government. Police used excessive force against Morales supporters after Áñez signed a decree guaranteeing amnesty for security personnel involved in restoring order in the country, according to a group of independent experts commissioned by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

But Bolivians remain divided on the question of whether Áñez’s rise to the presidency was, in fact, a coup. And her treatment since being detained has also raised charges of retribution by her opponents.

Áñez’s mental and physical health has deteriorated in jail, and she cut her wrist after being charged separately with genocide, prompting the European Union and the United States to urge the government to safeguard her well-being.

Genocide prosecution of former president tests Bolivia’s justice system

She was not allowed to participate in her defense in court, instead following the trial from prison. Earlier this week, her family said she had been forced to attend the hearings while sedated.

Centrist former president Carlos Mesa, who was a losing candidate in the 2020 election, has criticized the trial and urged international observers to intervene.

Human Rights Watch researcher César Muñoz said he was concerned about the judicial process against Áñez in a justice system that has been plagued by a lack of independence.

“The crimes for which Áñez was convicted, dereliction of duty and taking decisions contrary to the law, are very broadly defined in Bolivian law,” Muñoz wrote on Twitter. “They were misused by the Evo Morales government and the Áñez government in criminal cases that appeared to be politically motivated.”

He urged a higher tribunal to review the evidence and examine whether Áñez’s rights were violated.

Representatives of the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights have been observing the trial of Áñez and will release a full report of their findings, the rights agency said Friday.

The conviction was welcomed by Áñez’s critics, including those who say they suffered persecution under her leadership.

Orestes Sotomayor, who was imprisoned after running news articles critical of Áñez, wrote on Twitter that the sentence marks the beginning of justice for “massacres, persecution and corruption.”

Samantha Schmidt contributed to this report.