The party of El Salvador’s President Nayib Bukele voted early on Sunday to remove the country’s top prosecutor, part of an intensifying political drama that has rocked the Central American country and drawn international criticism.
The vote shortly after midnight to dismiss Attorney General Raul Melara followed a new legislative majority’s votes on Saturday night to kick out all of the judges who sit on the constitutional chamber of the nation’s supreme court. The vote provoked rebukes from opposition lawmakers as well as some international rights organizations. read more
After a call with Bukele later on Sunday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken expressed his “grave concern” over the ouster of the judges and prosecutor in a statement.
Ruling party lawmakers accused Melara, whose office wields significant power to conduct investigations, of lacking independence, while Blinken cited what he described as the chief prosecutor’s effective track record of fighting corruption and impunity.
The administration of U.S. President Joe Biden has cited corruption in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras as one of the root causes, along with gang violence and poverty, of the increased flow of migrants to the U.S.-Mexico border.
The Biden administration is pressing those governments to do more to fight crime.
A savvy and constant user of social media, the popular Bukele stressed his desire to work with all sides, but he insisted the dismissals were warranted in a string of Twitter posts over the weekend.
“With all due respect, we’re cleaning our house and this isn’t your responsibility,” the 39-year-old president wrote, specifically addressing “the international community.”
Some 200 protesters, nearly all of them masked, gathered around San Salvador’s constitution monument on Sunday, peacefully chanting anti-Bukele slogans while expressing their frustration with the sudden sacking of officials.
“We need to show that a huge part of the population doesn’t agree with this,” said 25-year-old protester Mauricio Valladares.
International rights groups Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch had already weighed in, denouncing the removals as a dangerous power grab.
Just minutes after the vote to dismiss them on Saturday night, the five judges issued a ruling invalidating the legislative action, declaring it an unconstitutional attack on democracy and plunging the country into an uncertain political and legal battle.
But over the course of the next few hours lawmakers representing the president’s newly emboldened New Ideas party voted to replace the judges as well as an attorney general.
Police were then called in to escort the new judges and prosecutor to their new offices.
The five ousted judges – the most powerful jurists on the 15-member court – were among the few remaining checks on Bukele’s power. Bukele’s and his party accused them of impeding the government’s health strategy amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Later on Sunday, one of the five judges abruptly quit his post, according to a resignation letter posted on his Twitter account.
The nearly three-year-old New Ideas party took control of Congress after midterm elections in February gave it a large supermajority in the unicameral legislature, and freeing it from the need to negotiate with the opposition.
Saturday marked the first session of the new legislature, with lawmakers set to reconvene on Monday.
The motions to remove the judges and the prosecutor all passed with 64 lawmakers in favor, or nearly 80% of the 84-seat legislature, significantly more than the two-thirds vote required by the constitution.
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