ASUNCION, Paraguay (AP) — Paraguay's Senate convened to try President Fernando Lugo on Friday after he was impeached in a high-stakes confrontation between the leftist ex-priest and his former moderate allies.
Adolfo Ferreiro, one of the president's lawyers, said that Lugo wouldn't appear at the trial in the Senate and would be defended by his lawyers. The Senate is trying Lugo for allegedly having a role in a deadly confrontation involving landless farmers that left 17 dead.
Thousands of demonstrators gathered at Asuncion's main square in front of Congress to show their support for Lugo and condemn the trial that could lead to his ouster. They waved flags and chanted slogans including: "The people, united, will never be defeated!"
Police separated groups of pro- and anti-Lugo protesters.
Paraguay's lower house of Congress voted to impeach Lugo on Thursday, and the president said he would face the trial. In an interview with the Venezuela-based television channel Telesur, Lugo called it an attempt to carry out an "express coup d'etat."
A delegation of foreign ministers from the Union of South American Nations, or Unasur, arrived in Paraguay ahead of the trial to discuss the crisis.
Lugo's allies including the leaders of Bolivia and Ecuador have expressed concern and support for the president. Ecuador's president, Rafael Correa, said on Thursday night that Unasur could not "recognize the new government" if Lugo were to be ousted.
Venezuelan Vice President Elias Jaua also backed Lugo at rally in Venezuela, calling it a struggle for "democracy to be respected."
The growing crisis has put Paraguay's fragile democracy to a test, and prompted frightened residents to close shops and pull children out of schools fearing potential violence.
The impoverished, landlocked nation has a long history of political instability. Lugo was elected four years ago on promises of helping the South American country's poor, but his more moderate government allies have increasingly turned against him in recent years.
If ousted, Lugo would be replaced by Vice President Federico Franco. Franco, of the Authentic Radical Liberal Party, "is ready to assume command and pacify the country," said Liberal lawmaker Enrique Sallim Buzarquis.
Lugo's election in 2008 ended 61 years of rule by the Colorado Party, and he has constantly clashed with Congress, where he has few firm allies.
Roberto Bacman, an Argentine political analyst, said he thinks all signs point to a political "conspiracy."
"This shows Lugo's political weakness. He couldn't build an alternative to the Colorado Party, which stayed under the shadows building power and winning more support," Bacman said.
The trigger for the current impeachment was an attempt by police to evict about 150 farmers from a remote, 4,900-acre (2,000-hectare) reserve, which is part of a huge estate owned by a Colorado Party politician. Advocates for the farmers say the landowner used political influence to get the land from the state decades ago, and say it should have been put to use for land reform.
Seventeen people died in the clash and many people blamed Lugo.
Lugo, 61, has expressed sorrow at the confrontation and accepted the resignations of his interior minister and his chief of police.
Fernando Estenssoro, a political analyst at University of Santiago in Chile, said the political conflict seemed capable of triggering violence, even though technically Lugo's opponents appeared to be operating within the constitution.
"Nothing's illegal up to now. But the constitution needs to be reformed. An impeachment trial where a president has only two hours to defend himself? It's absurd. Where else have you heard of something like that?," Estenssoro said. "His supporters are not going stand by with their arms crossed while he's removed from power."
Associated Press writers Luis Andres Henao in Santiago, Chile, Ian James in Caracas, Venezuela, and Gonzalo Solano in Quito, Ecuador, contributed to this report.