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Bolivia government using judiciary to go after ex-leader Morales, report says

SANTIAGO (Reuters) - Bolivia’s interim government has used the justice system to carry out a political attack against ex-president Evo Morales and his allies, a Human Rights Watch report said on Friday, an allegation the conservative administration rejected.

Former Bolivian President Evo Morales gestures during an interview with Reuters, in Buenos Aires, Argentina March 2, 2020. REUTERS/Agustin Marcarian/Files

The government, led by President Jeanine Anez, took over late last year after a contentious general election sparked widespread protests that eventually forced long-time leftist leader Morales to resign.

The HRW report said terrorism charges against Morales over deadly unrest after he fled the country last November appeared to be “politically motivated”. It added Morales had used the judiciary in a similar way during his near 14-year rule.

Tensions have been simmering in the Andean nation as it heads for a delayed re-run of that election on Oct. 18. Anez and others will run against the current front-runner, a candidate from Morales’ socialist party.

The government’s charges against Morales related to a single phone call days after he left Bolivia in which he urged a supporter to “fight” the interim government, HRW said, and the 20-year prison term sought for the alleged offence was “wholly disproportionate.”

Terrorism charges brought against Morales’s former lawyer and chief of staff were based on phone contact she had with him, it added, while a Morales supporter was charged with sedition for describing the new government as “dictatorial.”

Yerko Núñez, Bolivia’s Presidency Minister, said in response to the report that the government categorically rejected the idea of any political persecution against Morales.

“A former president ordered cities to be blockaded, not to allow the passage of food in a country that he himself governed, all for a simple desire for power,” he added.

HRW said it was given access to thousands of court documents and police reports relating to 21 cases of the more than 100 former Morales administration members or supporters accused of crimes including terrorism and sedition.

It said it uncovered evidence that Morales had also used the justice system against his opponents during his years in office, and that Anez “had a chance to break with the past and ensure judicial independence.”

Instead, her government had publicly pressurized prosecutors and judges “to further its interests”, said José Miguel Vivanco, HRW’s Americas director.

The Anez government this week referred opposition supporters who led protests and road blockades against the pandemic-related delay to the International Criminal Court, saying that cutting civilians off from medical help constituted “crimes against humanity.”

On Monday a Bolivian court rejected a legal appeal by Morales against a ruling that banned him for running for a senate seat on the grounds he is no longer a Bolivian resident.

Reporting by Aislinn Laing; Additional reporting by Daniel Ramos; Editing by David Gregorio