Human rights and justice experts have criticized lawmakers aligned with populist President Salvador Nayib Bukele for voting to remove top Supreme Court judges, a move they say aims to remove all opposition to Bukele’s firm grip on power.
On Saturday, the legislature voted to dismiss all judges in the constitutional chamber of the Supreme Court for rendering “arbitrary” decisions.
Lawmakers also voted to dismiss Attorney General Raul Melara, considered close to an opposition party.
Bukele’s Nuevas Ideas (New Ideas) party and its allies hold an absolute majority in the chamber after their won overwhelmingly legislative polls in February.
“And the Salvadoran people, through their representatives, said: REJECTED!” Bukele tweeted after the vote.
Elisa Rosales, a legislative leader for New Ideas, said the move was necessary to fight COVID-19.
She said there was “clear evidence” that the five judges had hampered the government’s health strategy and that lawmakers had to remove them to protect the public.
Just minutes after the vote, judges responded by declaring Congress’ decision unconstitutional, sparking a clash between the country’s highest powers.
Several human rights groups and experts have sounded the alarm, accusing the president of driving El Salvador into a political crisis.
“Bukele is breaking with the rule of law and seeking to concentrate all power in his hands,” Jose Miguel Vivanco, executive director of the Americas division of Human Rights Watch, said on Twitter.
“This is a situation that involves deep risk. He [Congress] plays with fire and risks aggravating this crisis to such an extent that we will not be able to get out of it, ”Miguel Montenegro, coordinator of the human rights commission, told AFP news agency.
The Organization of American States has also declared that it condemns the dismissal of judges, declaring that “the utmost respect for the democratic rule of law is essential”.
“I condemn the measures taken by the political power to dismantle and weaken the judicial independence of magistrates by dismissing members of the Constitutional Chamber”, also tweeted Diego Garcia-Sayan, UN special rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers. the vote.
‘None of your business’
Civil society groups had warned ahead of the February 28 elections that if Bukele’s party did well, the results could accelerate the deterioration of the country’s democratic institutions.
But many voters expressed frustration with the more traditional political parties that had maintained control in El Salvador since the country’s 12-year civil war ended in 1992 – and said they supported the feast of Bukele because he promised to fight corruption.
Just after midnight on Sunday, Bukele said on Twitter that if El Salvador is to work with the international community, it should go out of business in the country.
“To our friends in the international community: we want to work with you, do business, travel, get to know each other and help us where we can. Our doors are more open than ever. But with all due respect: we clean our house… and it’s none of your business, ”he said. tweeted.
Statement by the OAS General Secretariat on the situation in El Salvador
– OEA (@OAS_official) May 2, 2021
Nonetheless, Salvadoran opposition lawmakers accused Nuevas Ideas of carrying out an attempted “coup”.
“What happened last night in the Legislative Assembly, with a majority the people voted for them, is a coup,” said right-wing Arena party lawmaker René Portillo.
U.S. lawmakers and President Joe Biden’s administration officials also condemned the vote.
Earlier this week, the Biden administration pledged $ 310 million in aid in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala to stem the tide of migration to the United States.
“Let’s be clear: this is not democracy, it is the destruction of an independent judiciary and the rule of law,” said MP Jim McGovern tweeted, while Juan Gonzalez, Biden’s senior advisor for Latin America, said, “That’s not what you do.”
“A strong relationship between the United States and El Salvador will depend on the Salvadorian government’s support for the separation of powers and respect for democratic standards,” Julie Chung, head of the US State Department, also said on Twitter.