Lawmakers name respected centrist as Peru’s president

Lima, Nov 16 (efe-epa).- The Peruvian Congress voted 97-26 to appoint a well-regarded centrist legislator to lead a caretaker government following the resignation of Manuel Merino amid massive protests against the unpopular congressional ouster of President Martin Vizcarra.

Technically, members elected Francisco Sagasti, 76, as speaker of Congress, but because the presidency and the vice presidency are vacant, he will automatically become head of state as next in the line of succession.

Sagasti was among only 19 lawmakers in the 130-seat body to oppose the removal of Vizcarra on the grounds that it was illegitimate, destabilizing and contrary to popular opinion.

The center-right parties that pushed to get rid of Vizcarra apparently accepted Sagasti in the hope that the choice of an opponent of impeachment will mollify the public.

“I am convinced that we can only make progress working together, collaborating,” Sagasti said after taking the oath of office as speaker of Congress.

“We have seen the deaths of two young men in protests, expressing their point of view democratically and practically without violence,” he said, referring to Inti Sotelo and Jack Pintado, who died late Saturday of wounds received when police fired pellets at them.

While politicians cannot “bring them back to life,” Sagasti said, they can “take steps to prevent this happening again.”

“We will do everything possible to return hope to Peru,” he said ahead of being sworn-in as president on Tuesday.

Sagasti, an engineer by training who spent several years as an adviser to the World Bank, is better placed than Merino to assemble a broad-based Cabinet to ensure a peaceful transition to a new president after the election set for April 11, 2021.

Merino’s decision late Sunday to step down left Peru without a head of state in the context of a deadly pandemic and the resulting economic crisis.

With more than 35,000 deaths and 935,000 confirmed cases, Peru leads the world in per capita fatalities from coronavirus.

The congressional designation of Sagasti came hours after Attorney General Zoraida Avalos said that she ordered a preliminary investigation of Merino, Prime Minister Antero Flores-Araoz and Interior Minister Gaston Rodriguez in connection with the brutal repression of protests against the transitional government.

In addition to the deaths of Pintado and Sotelo, dozens were wounded and a number of female protesters were sexually assaulted in police custody.

“These deaths will not go unpunished,” the attorney general said, pointing out that the offenses took place “in the context of the violation of human rights.”

Merino and his colleagues could face up to 35 years in prison if convicted on homicide charges, Carlos Rivera, an attorney with the independent Legal Defense Institute, told Efe.

The institute joined other human rights organizations to file a criminal complaint against Merino, Flores-Araoz, Rodriguez, National Police director Orlando Velasco and the regional police commander in Lima, Jorge Cayas.

“There is a concrete fact that can be verified: Merino, Antero-Flores and Rodriguez were part of a leadership take made decisions with the aim of repressing the acts of public demonstration and protest,” the filing says.

Hundreds of people turned out Monday in Lima for the funerals of Sotelo and Pintado, hailed as “heroes of the bicentenary” in reference to next year’s 200th anniversary of Peruvian independence.

“For me, my son will always be a fighter,” Oscar Pintado told Efe at Jack’s wake.

“I don’t wish on anybody to find your son with 10 lead pellets inside his body. I don’t wish on anybody to see your son opened up (for an autopsy). Do you know what it is to see a person who has been opened up? Just imagine it, it’s traumatic,” the grieving father said.

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