Paraguay grants refuge to Evo Morales opponent

Paraguay granted political refugee status to a key opponent of Bolivia's leftist President Evo Morales on Tuesday, sheltering him from corruption charges across the border.

Mario Cossio fled to Paraguay last month after provincial lawmakers allied with Morales ousted him as governor of the natural gas-rich state of Tarija due to charges of dereliction of duty and causing economic damage. He would face up to eight years in prison if convicted in Bolivia.

Morales critics claim Cossio is another victim in a campaign to remove political opponents of Bolivia's popular president, who they say controls the chief prosecutor's office and its courts.

Cossio himself said shortly before he was ousted that the Morales government "wants to demolish everything that opposes it in order to have total power."

Morales allies deny accusations that the charges amount to political persecution.

"Cossio is desperate and can't shield himself," national Senate president Rene Martinez said last month.

Under a law passed by a Bolivian legislature dominated by the president's supporters, public officials can be unseated based only on the filing of criminal charges. Cossio is at least the third Morales opponent to be ousted under the law.

Tuesday's decision by Paraguay's refugee commission means Cossio can live and work indefinitely in the country if he chooses.

Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo said last week that "indications of persecution exist" in Bolivia's treatment of Cossio.

Morales accused the right-wing forces that dominate much of Paraguay's government of trying to create enmity between him and his leftist ally Lugo.