By CARLOS VALDEZ
2009-05-21 06:23 AM
Morales said the measure is needed to prevent government opponents in the conservative eastern lowlands from leading a separatist movement and he accused several opposition leaders of backing alleged mercenaries in an assassination plot.
"If we catch businessmen financing separatist activities," the leftist president said, "they must be punished."
But Morales' adversaries fear the government will use its new power to persecute opponents.
The decree, which lets prosecutors freeze bank accounts and seize property belonging to suspects, amounts to "state terrorism," said Santa Cruz lawmaker Oscar Urenda.
Senate president Oscar Ortiz argued that the decree violates due process.
"The government does not have the power to establish sentences, and it cannot hand down punishment on suspicions before there's a trial," Ortiz said.
Morales spokesman Juan Ramon Quintana denied the government intends to stifle opposition, saying the decree only targets "activities aimed at undermining national unity or creating potential risks to the nation's security."
Anti-Morales sentiment is widespread in eastern Bolivia, where several provinces are seeking increased autonomy and have resisted government reforms aimed at redistributing resources to benefit the country's long-neglected indigenous majority.
In a raid last month on a Santa Cruz hotel, police killed three men who allegedly planned to kill Morales and other officials in hopes of encouraging a separatist revolt.