Crisis brewing as El Salvador’s Congress votes out top judges

Rights advocates and political opposition decry the move as an attempt by President Nayib Bukele to cement his power.

Representatives react as they voted for the removal of Supreme Court judges, in San Salvador, on May 1 [Jose Cabezas/Reuters]

Human rights and judicial experts have slammed lawmakers aligned with El Salvador’s populist President Nayib Bukele for voting to dismiss top Supreme Court judges, a move they say aims to remove any opposition to Bukele’s firm grip on power.

On Saturday, the legislative assembly voted to dismiss all the justices in the Supreme Court’s constitutional chamber for issuing “arbitrary” decisions.

The 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 they overwhelmingly won legislative polls in February.

“And the people of El Salvador, through their representatives, said: DISMISSED!” Bukele tweeted following the vote.

Elisa Rosales, a New Ideas legislative leader, said the move was needed to address COVID-19.

She said there is “clear evidence” that the five judges had impeded the government’s health strategy and that lawmakers had to remove them to protect the public.

El Salvador’s President Nayib Bukele has dismissed accusations he is trying to cement his total control of the country [File: Jose Cabezas]

Just minutes after the vote, the judges responded with a ruling that the congressional decision was unconstitutional, setting up a clash of the country’s top powers.

Several human rights groups and experts have sounded the alarm, accusing the president of leading El Salvador into a political crisis.

“Bukele is breaking with the rule of law and seeks to concentrate all power in his hands,” Jose Miguel Vivanco, executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Americas division, said on Twitter.

“It is a situation which carries a profound risk. It [Congress] is playing with fire and may deepen this crisis to such a magnitude that we will not be able to get out of it,” Miguel Montenegro, coordinator of the human rights commission, told the AFP news agency.

The Organization of American States also said it condemned the dismissal of the judges, saying “the fullest respect for the democratic rule of law is essential”.

“I condemn the steps that the political power has been taking to dismantle and weaken the judicial independence of the magistrates by dismissing members of the Constitutional Chamber,” Diego Garcia-Sayan, UN special rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers, also tweeted after 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 speed up the deterioration of the country’s democratic institutions.

But many voters expressed frustration with more traditional political parties that had maintained control in El Salvador since the end of the country’s 12-year civil war in 1992 – and said they supported Bukele’s party because it promised to tackle corruption.

Just after midnight on Sunday, Bukele said on Twitter that while El Salvador wants to work with the international community, it should butt out of the country’s affairs.

“To our friends in the International Community: We want to work with you, trade, travel, get to know each other and help where we can. Our doors are more open than ever. But with all due respect: We are cleaning our house … and this is none of your business,” he tweeted.

Nevertheless, Salvadoran opposition legislators accused Nuevas Ideas of carrying out an attempted “coup”.

“What happened last night in the Legislative Assembly, with a majority that the people gave them through the vote, is a coup,” said right-wing Arena Party lawmaker Rene Portillo.

US lawmakers and officials from President Joe Biden’s administration also condemned the vote.

Earlier this week, the Biden administration pledged $310m in aid to El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala to stem the tide of migration towards the United States.

“Let us be clear: this is not democracy, this is the destruction of an independent judiciary and the rule of law,” Congressman Jim McGovern tweeted, while Juan Gonzalez, Biden’s senior adviser for Latin America, said: “This is not what you do.”

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Sunday that he had spoken with Bukele to raise “serious concerns” about the congressional vote. “Democratic governance requires respecting the separation of powers, for the good of all Salvadorans,” Blinken tweeted.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies