Salvadoran lawyers and human rights groups fear newly sworn-in lawmakers dealt an irreparable blow to the country’s young and fragile democracy after lawmakers have dismissed officials key offices during the weekend.
The dismissal of the country’s attorney general and Constitutional Court judges removes two of the remaining checks on the power of President Nayib Bukele’s administration, which was consolidate control of democratic institutions since taking office in June 2019.
Salvadoran human rights defender Celia Medrano said it also meant the government wanted to “stay in power and crush any opposition.”
In a country still recovering from a 12-year civil war that ended in 1992 and claimed 75,000 lives, Saturday’s parliamentary votes revive old memories of an era of repression and human rights abuses man and recall the fragility of the country’s democratic system.
“Everything indicates that it will be a long period of darkness in the country in terms of democracy,” Medrano told Al Jazeera.
‘Give the example’
Bukele won the presidency in 2019 on a anti-corruption platform that seduced to voters who are fed up with the country’s two traditional parties, the left-wing FMLN and the right-wing ARENA. But without the backing of the country’s lawmakers, many of his proposals were stalled in the first two years of his tenure.
Institutions such as the Constitutional Court, the Prosecutor’s Office and the Ombudsman have often acted to control his power.
In February, the feast of Bukele Nuevas Ideas, or New Ideas, won 56 seats out of 84 in the National Assembly after an overwhelming show of support from voters. When lawmakers took office on May 1, they acted swiftly – and unconstitutionally, legal experts say – to impeach the five Constitutional Court judges as well as Attorney General Raul Melara.
Five new judges have already been appointed to the Court by the new assembly. Three of the ousted judges have officially resigned since, citing personal reasons, but not before issuing a declaration of unconstitutionality of their dismissal.
“With this, the Legislative Assembly sets an example. They tell everyone else in charge: “If you question the president’s vision, you can also be removed from office,” said Manuel Escalante, lawyer at the University’s Institute of Human Rights. from Central America (IDHUCA).
Bukele and his supporters defended the actions necessary to rid the country of corrupt officials from past administrations. “People did not send us to negotiate. They leave. All, »Bukele tweeted May 3.
Also on TwitterSuecy Callejas Estrada, one of the Nuevas Ideas lawmakers who spearheaded the initiative, defended the ruling as constitutional, citing three articles to support his argument.
Yet legal experts have refuted this interpretation of the constitution, which establishes a process for dismissing officials, but only under limited conditions that legal experts say have not been met.
Civil servants can be removed from their posts for “specific causes established in advance by law” and a process for selecting new candidates to fill newly vacant posts must be followed. The new lawmakers got around this in an ad hoc process, according to Escalante.
“The explanations that the assembly gave on Saturday were by no means legal explanations based on the legal system,” he said. “Instead, what they expressed was simply dissatisfaction with the Constitutional Court because they [the justices] disagreed with the president’s constitutional interpretation. “
Escalante added, “Their actions convey the message that the only one who interprets the constitution correctly is the president.”
In addition, the timing of the attorney general’s impeachment suggests a political motive, according to Medrano. “It is important to stress that the impeachment of the attorney general took place at a time when he was investigating serious acts of corruption and the current government’s links with organized crime,” she told Al Jazeera.
The president’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
International human rights groups and US officials immediately condemned the actions in El Salvador.
US Vice President Kamala Harris, who is leading the efforts of the Biden administration to work with Mexico and Central American countries to stem migration, said the administration was “deeply concerned” by the events. “An independent judiciary is essential for a healthy democracy – and a strong economy,” she tweeted on May 2.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken echoed these concerns during a call with Bukele on Sunday, the State Department said in a statement, while USAID, the country’s development agency, said that an independent judiciary is “a necessary precondition to fight corruption and attract investment” in El Salvador.
However, Bukele dismissed these criticisms.
“To our friends in the international community: we want to work with you, do business, travel and get to know each other and help in what we can. Our doors are more open than ever. But with all due respect: we’re cleaning our house… and it’s none of your business, ”he tweeted on Saturday.
To our friends in the international community:
We want to work with you, exchange, travel, get to know each other and help each other where we can.
Our doors are more open than ever.
But with all due respect:
We clean our house.
… And that’s none of your business.
– Nayib Bukele 🇸🇻 (@nayibbukele) May 2, 2021
El Salvador’s constitutional crisis comes as the Biden administration has pledged to prioritize strong democratic institutions in Central America.
“There’s a pretty clear message coming from the United States and I think it’s important,” said Geoff Thale, president of the Washington Office of Latin America (WOLA), a nonprofit that promotes human rights. man in the area. “But now they’re going to have to think about actions.”
Sanctioning corrupt government officials and appealing to Bukele’s interests – trade and economy – are two potential ways for the United States to continue its commitment to building democracy, Thale told Al Jazeera.
Meanwhile, Salvadoran lawyers and human rights groups who want to challenge the recent measures are now at an impasse. Before, they could have turned to the Constitutional Court – but no more.
“By taking control of these institutions,” Escalante said, “they force us to face a situation in which anyone seeking justice or attempting to control the abuse of power by the executive will not find it.”