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El Salvador tense as parliament votes to oust top prosecutor, judges

The president of the Nuevas Ideas (NI) ruling party, Xavi Zablah, speaks to the media, in San Salvador, on May 1, 2021. (Photo by AFP)

El Salvador's parliament has voted to remove the country’s top prosecutor and five Supreme Court judges, drawing sharp rebukes from opposition lawmakers and sparking angry protests in the Central American country.

The parliament, newly controlled by President Nayib Bukele's party, dismissed Attorney General Raul Melara in a vote on midnight Saturday over alleged ties to the right-wing Arena opposition party.

The vote to dismiss Melara followed the legislature’s vote to oust all of the judges sitting in the constitutional chamber of the nation's Supreme Court.

The president and his Nuevas Ideas party accused the ousted judges of impeding the government's health strategy amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Just minutes after the vote, the judges issued a ruling invalidating the legislative action, describing it as an unconstitutional attack on democracy.

Opposition parties also denounced the move as a “coup.”

“As a parliamentary group, we will not be complicit in this coup,” said leftist FMLN lawmaker Anabel Belloso.

Bukele later took to Twitter, praising the vote. “And the people of El Salvador, through their representatives, said: DISMISSED!"

“With all due respect, we're cleaning our house and this isn't your responsibility,” the 39-year-old president wrote.

Protesters took to the streets on Sunday to condemn the judges’ removal.

Some 200 protesters, nearly all of them masked, gathered around San Salvador's constitution monument, chanting slogans against Bukele.

“We need to show that a huge part of the population doesn't agree with this,” said a protester.

Police were called in to escort the new judges and prosecutor to their offices.

Later on Sunday, one of the five newly appointed judges, however, abruptly quit his post, according to a resignation letter posted on his Twitter account.

A demonstrator holds a sign reading “A fascist will not erase our memory” during a protest in San Salvador, on May 2, 2021. (Photo by AFP)

The Organization of American States (OAS) said it “rejects the dismissal” of the judges and attorney general, “as well as the actions of the Executive Branch that guided these decisions.”

The United Nations special rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, Diego Garcia-Sayan, also reacted to the move. “I condemn the steps that the political power has been taking to dismantle and weaken the judicial independence of the magistrates,” he said.

US Vice President Kamala Harris said on Sunday Washington had “deep concerns” for democracy in El Salvador. “An independent judiciary is critical to a healthy democracy — and to a strong economy,” she tweeted late Sunday.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke to President Bukele by telephone, expressing Washington's “grave concern” and “noting that an independent judiciary is essential to democratic governance.”

Rights groups accused Bukele of “breaking with the rule of law and seeking to concentrate all power in his hands.”

“It is a situation which carries a profound risk,” said Jose Miguel Vivanco, executive director of Human Rights Watch's Americas division.

Director of El Salvador's human rights commission, Miguel Montenegro, warned that the parliament “is playing with fire and may deepen this crisis to such a magnitude that we will not be able to get out of it.”

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch also denounced the removals as a dangerous power grab.

Bukele’s allies now hold 61 of the 84 seats in parliament, making him the first president in nearly three decades to have a majority in the legislature.

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