Peru judge approves 18-month detention of ousted president facing rebellion charge

A Peruvian judge has approved an 18-month detention for ousted president Pedro Castillo as officials build a case that he incited rebellion.

Pedro Castillo attempted to dissolve congress ahead of his impeachment vote

A man gestures while seated at a table.
Pedro Castillo is seen at a conference at the presidential palace in Lima, Peru, on Oct. 11. The ousted Peruvian president is in custody while authorities build their case against him for inciting a rebellion. (Martin Mejia/The Associated Press)

A Peruvian judge on Thursday ordered ousted president Pedro Castillo to remain in custody for 18 months, approving a request from authorities for time to build their rebellion case against him.

The judge's decision came a day after the government declared a state of emergency as it struggles to calm violent protests.

The protests erupted after Castillo was voted out of power by lawmakers last week, following his attempt to dissolve congress ahead of an impeachment vote. Congress also stripped Castillo of the privilege that keeps Peru's presidents from facing criminal charges.

Peru's Supreme Prosecutor Alcides Chinchay said in court Thursday that Castillo faces at least 10 years in prison for the rebellion charge.

Castillo and his legal team refused to participate in Thursday's virtual hearing, arguing it lacked "minimum guarantees." He was represented by a public defender.

A protester holds a Peruvian flag over his head while participating in a march.
Castillo's supporters march in Lima on Thursday. Castillo's impeachment and arrest last week has sparked protests across the country. (Martin Bernetti/AFP/Getty Images)

This latest political crisis has only deepened the instability gripping the country, which has seen six presidents in as many years.

Protesters are demanding Castillo's freedom, the resignation of President Dina Boluarte, and the immediate scheduling of general elections to pick a new president and members of congress. They have burned police stations, taken over an airstrip used by the armed forces and invaded the runway of the international airport in Arequipa, a gateway to some of Peru's tourist attractions.

Protests roll a boulder onto a highway.
Protesters roll a boulder onto the Pan-American North Highway in Chao on Thursday. (Hugo Curotto/The Associated Press)

Thousands of tourists have also been affected. The passenger train that carries visitors to Machu Picchu suspended service and roadblocks on the Pan-American Highway stranded trailer trucks for days, spoiling food bound for the capital.

Jennifer Korver and Heather Vitkuske, two sisters from Ontario, are among those stranded in Arequipa. They were there for a wedding and headed to the airport on Monday when they hit a roadblock.

"We quickly turned around and asked [our driver] to drop us off at the nearest Hilton. We've been stuck here since then," Korver told CBC News.

"It's definitely not safe at night," she said. "We feel the safest when we're at the hotel and we don't go very far… stir-craziness has set in."

Two women pose for a selfie.
Ontario sisters Heather Vitkuske, left, and Jennifer Korver have been stuck in Arequipa since Monday. (Jennifer Korver)

Vitkuske said they don't want to risk the 14-hour drive to Lima and instead are waiting for the Arequipa airport to reopen.

"We don't feel safe taking ground transportation," she said. 

Global Affairs Canada has urged Canadians in Peru to exercise caution, avoid both non-essential travel and large crowds, and to follow instructions from local authorities.

Embattled presidency

While in office, Castillo spent much of his time defending himself against attacks from an adversarial congress and investigations ranging from corruption to plagiarism. Now, it remains unclear whether Boluarte — once his running mate and vice-president — will get a chance to govern. Just like Castillo, she is a newcomer to politics without a base in congress.

"She's doing a good job right now for the moment," said Cynthia McClintock, a political science professor at George Washington University who has studied Peru extensively. "But it's a big challenge."

While some protesters "seem to want kind of instability at any cost," McClintock said, others saw Castillo's ouster as an opening to express simmering grievances, such as deep inequality, poverty and lack of public services.

A woman in a blue blazer gestures while speaking at a microphone.
President Dina Boluarte is seen at a news conference at the government palace in Lima on Dec. 8. (Fernando Vergara/The Associated Press)

Boluarte may also be given some breathing room by lawmakers seeking to keep their jobs. They cannot pursue re-election and would be jobless if a general election for congress is scheduled, as protesters want.

Boluarte on Wednesday sought to placate protesters by saying general elections could potentially be scheduled for December 2023, four months earlier than the timing she had proposed to congress just a few days earlier.

A column of black smoke rises from a fire, burning amid a gathering of protesters at a blockade of a highway.
Castillo supporters block a highway in Viru on Thursday. (Hugo Curotto/The Associated Press)

All of the protest-related deaths have occurred in rural, impoverished communities outside Lima that are strongholds for Castillo, a political neophyte and former schoolteacher from a poor Andean mountain district.

In Andahuaylas, where at least four people have died since the demonstrations began, no soldiers were on the streets Thursday despite the government declaration allowing the armed forces to help maintain public order.

Some grocery store owners there were cleaning the roads littered with rocks and burned tires, but they planned to close their doors because of the expected protests led by people from nearby rural communities.

Allegedly sought asylum

Castillo's attempt to dissolve congress came ahead of lawmakers' third attempt to impeach him since he was elected in July 2021. After congress voted him out of power, Castillo's vehicle was intercepted as he traveled through Lima's streets with his security detail.

Chinchay, the prosecutor, insisted Castillo is a flight risk, saying he was trying to reach the Mexican Embassy to seek asylum after he left the presidential palace. He quoted remarks from Mexico's president and foreign affairs minister indicating Mexico was open to granting asylum.

Demonstrators clash with police in riot gear.
Demonstrators clash with police in Lima on Thursday. (Sebastian Castaneda/Reuters)

"We do not believe that he wanted to go to the Mexican Embassy to have tea," Chinchay said.

Castillo's public defender, Italo Diaz, denied that the former president is a flight risk. He told the judge Castillo's children and wife depend on him and he could return to his teaching job if freed.

The state of emergency declaration suspends the rights of assembly and freedom of movement and empowers the police, supported by the military, to search people's homes without permission or judicial order.

Defence Minister Luis Otarola Penaranda said the declaration was agreed to by the council of ministers.

On Wednesday, Boluarte pleaded for calm as demonstrations continued against her and congress.

"Peru cannot overflow with blood," she said.

In a handwritten letter shared Wednesday with The Associated Press by his associate Mauro Gonzales, Castillo asked the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to intercede for his "rights and the rights of my Peruvian brothers who cry out for justice." The commission investigates allegations of human rights violations and litigates them in some cases.

Armed soldiers march along a street.
Soldiers guard a highway in Yura on Thursday. Peru is now under a state of emergency, which empowers the military to support police efforts. (Diego Ramos/AFP/Getty Images)

With files from CBC News