Peru court orders indigenous governor of mining region to six years in prison

LIMA (Reuters) - A Peruvian court ordered the arrest of the indigenous governor of a mineral-rich southern region after sentencing him to six years in prison on Wednesday for leading 2011 deadly protests against a Canadian open-pit silver project.

FILE PHOTO: Walter Aduviri, governor-elect of the Puno region in southern Peru, talks during an interview in Lima, Peru November 13, 2018. REUTERS/Marco Aquino

Walter Aduviri, 39, the governor of Puno and an indigenous Aymara leader, was found guilty in absentia by a criminal court of disturbing public order, the office of the judiciary said on Twitter.

Aduviri did not appear at the trial and ignored a previous judicial order to be held in jail ahead of it.

His current whereabouts are unknown, leaving it unclear who has been governing the highland region rich in gold, silver, tin, lithium and uranium. Agustin Luque, the deputy governor of Puno, was expected to replace him in office.

One of Aduviri’s attorneys, Aldo Valdivia, said he continues to deny any wrongdoing and is at an undisclosed “safe harbor” while he resists a judicial process he considers unfair.

A trained accountant and a self-avowed admirer of indigenous President Evo Morales in neighboring Bolivia, Aduviri spent most of 2018 as a fugitive of a sedition conviction before being acquitted on appeal and winning the governor’s race in October regional elections.

The new sentence was a blow one of the more radical local leaders in the country’s mineral-rich south, a bastion for opposition to politics dominated by Lima elites where many clamor for a greater share of mining proceeds.

However, the ruling might also fuel anti-mining sentiment in a region that is already simmering with protests against an industry that drives about 15% of the country’s economic growth and 60% of its export earnings.

Aduviri plans to file an appeal as soon as he receives official notification of his sentence. “We’ll take it to the Supreme Court,” Valdivia said, arguing there was no direct proof Aduviri had organized the protests.

Known as the “Aymarazo,” in reference to the Aymara Indians like Aduviri who have led opposition to a Canadian miner Bear Creek Mining Corp’s plans to tap a silver deposit in Puno, the 2011 protests left five dead in clashes with police and led the government to rescind the company’s authorization to operate.

Aduviri told Reuters in an interview last year that he and other anti-mining activists had been unfairly targeted by the country’s justice system for exercising their constitutional right to protest.

Peru is the world’s No.2 copper, zinc and silver producer and the sixth largest gold producer. But conflicts over the country’s most robust industry have blocked billions of dollars in potential investments in the past decade.

In recent weeks, opposition to Southern Copper Corp’s $1.4 billion Tia Maria project by farmers who fear it will contaminate crops has triggered clashes in the region of Arequipa, suspending copper shipments from an important minerals port for weeks as protesters seized key infrastructure.

On Monday, a fresh strike against another mining project - Anglo American PLC’s $5 billion Quellaveco project - got underway in the neighboring region of Moquegua, with some local media reporting protesters had occupied roads.

Residents in Moquegua have complained that Anglo American is not meeting its commitment to hire local labor for the mine’s construction, a charge the company has denied.

Aduviri is an outspoken critic of Peru’s decades-old business-friendly economic model and has opposed Bear Creek’s efforts to revive its silver project, calling it “impossible.”

While he has not said whether he supports Plateau Energy Metals Inc’s plans to build a lithium and uranium mine in Puno, he has called for the Peruvian state to nationalize strategic resources - a move beyond his powers as governor.

Reporting by Marco Aquino and Mitra Taj; Editing by Sandra Maler