Friday 15 November 2019

Paraguay's president fires interior minister after protester dies

People ram a barrier into the Congress building during clashes in Asuncion (AP)
People ram a barrier into the Congress building during clashes in Asuncion (AP)

President Horacio Cartes has fired Paraguay's interior minister and top police official after the killing of a young opposition leader and violent clashes sparked by a secret Senate vote for a constitutional amendment to allow presidential re-election.

Dozens of people, including a police officer, were arrested on Friday evening in demonstrations that saw protesters break through police lines and enter the first floor of Paraguay's legislature, setting fire to papers and furniture.

Police used water cannon and fired rubber bullets to drive protesters away from the building while firefighters extinguished blazes inside.

In the early hours of Saturday, 25-year-old Rodrigo Quintana was shot and killed at the headquarters of the Authentic Radical Liberal Party, away from the congress building where most of the protests took place.

Anti-riot police with rifles and their heads and faces covered by helmets had stormed the opposition headquarters.

Security camera footage showed people in a corridor running away from police and Mr Quintana falling to the ground, apparently hit from behind. Seconds later, a policeman carrying a gun is seen stepping on Mr Quintana, who is face-down on the ground.

Before stepping down, police commander Crispulo Sotelo identified Gustavo Florentin as the police officer responsible for Mr Quintana's death and said he had been arrested.

Later on Saturday, Mr Cartes said Mr Sotelo and interior minister Miguel Tadeo Rojas had left their posts.

Because of the violence, Saturday and Monday's sessions of the Chamber of Deputies were cancelled. "We will evaluate the situation on Tuesday," said legislative president Hugo Velazquez.

The protests broke out after a majority of senators approved the amendment allowing for presidential re-election, a move opponents said was illegal because the vote was taken without all members of the senate present.

Presidents are limited to a single five-year term and the proposal would allow Mr Cartes and Paraguay's previous presidents to run for the top job again in the 2018 election - a controversial issue in a country haunted by the 35-year rule of General Alfredo Stroessner.

The process to pass the amendment began on Tuesday when 25 senators changed the internal procedures to speed up the vote against the wishes of Senate president Roberto Acevedo and other members of the chamber.

Mr Acevedo, of the Authentic Radical Liberal Party, said that process violated Senate rules and he filed an appeal to the Supreme Court seeking to have the decision overturned.

Political analyst Ignacio Martinez said the extreme reaction to the move probably lies in fears of another long-running government like that of Stroessner, who ruled Paraguay from 1954 to 1989 after a military coup.

The measure for a constitutional amendment allowing for presidential re-election was backed by 25 of the country's 45 senators. The yes votes came from members of the governing Colorado Party and several opposition groups.

After approval in the Senate, the proposal went to the Chamber of Deputies, where 44 of the 80 members belong to the Colorado Party. Approval there would require the scheduling of a national referendum.

Mr Cartes said vice minister of internal security Lorenzo Lezcano would replace Mr Rojas as interior minister, and police sub-commander Luis Carlos Rojas would take over from Mr Sotelo.


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