Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Judicial Independence Under Fire in Honduras

The conflict between Honduras’ Supreme Court and the executive and legislative branches heated up yesterday after the Honduran Congress voted to create a special commission charged with investigating the “administrative conduct” of federal judges in the country. El Heraldo reports that the initiative, which was passed late yesterday afternoon by the ruling majority of President Porfirio Lobo’s conservative National Party, will focus mainly on the five-member Constitutional Branch of the Supreme Court. 

This comes after the Constitutional Branch ruled on November 26 that a law aimed at cleaning up the country's notoriously corrupt police force was unconstitutional, as the associated vetting process called for the immediate removal of any officer who failed background checks and lie detector tests, and did not allow for an appeal. The ruling was made on the very same day that the anti-police corruption law expired, and the legislature was set to renew its mandate. 

In response Lobo lashed out at the court, calling it an “enemy of Honduras” and accusing its members of “betting against the country.” Tiempo reports that the president has continued his attacks on the court over the past week, sending “little love notes” to its members via his official Twitter account in which he accuses the court of siding with criminals. He has vowed to move forward with a purge of the police force with or without the support of the judiciary, pressuring Congress to pass an amendment to the constitution and calling for a public referendum on the matter. 

Lobo’s aggressive response to the court ruling raises serious questions about the state of separation of powers in Honduras. Because the Constitutional Branch’s decision was not unanimous, the final ruling on the police cleanup law will go to the whole Supreme Court. The president’s verbal assault, as well as his party’s creation of a congressional investigatory committee, amount to an attempt to intimidate the court into making a favorable decision. As Honduras Culture and Politics notes, Lobo’s proposal to hold a public referendum on the law despite the court’s ruling bears an ironic resemblance to the situation which led to the coup against former President Jose Manuel Zelaya in 2009, in which Zelaya attempted to circumvent the law by carrying out a vote on whether or not to hold a constitutional convention.

News Briefs
  • After announcing that his cancer had returned and endorsing Vice President Nicolas Maduro as his successor should he be unable to complete his term, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez returned to Cuba to resume treatment early Monday, according to the New York Times. The AFP reports that before leaving, Chavez left a statement to the military command to be vigilant against plans to destabilize the country in his absence.
  • The Washington Post features an in-depth look at the unlikely political career of Maduro, a former bus driver whose relatively low profile and outsider status may leave him vulnerable to attacks from the traditional leadership of the ruling Socialist Party.
  • Meanwhile, David Smilde and Hugo Perez Hernaiz of WOLA’s Venezuela Politics and Human Rights blog  evaluate the constitutional implications of Chavez’s death, pointing out that his return to Venezuela was a transparent attempt to shore up support for Maduro among his base. As they note, the timing of his announcement is a likely indicator that he fears he will be unable to assume office on January 10th. The Economist has an overview of Venezuela’s current political climate, and the Miami Herald questions whether the leader hid the extent of his illness during the recent presidential election.
  • The Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled yesterday that the government of El Salvador must investigate the 1981 El Mozote massacre, in which as many as 800 people were killed by soldiers. The court held that the country’s 1993 amnesty law does not apply to the case, and ordered the government to punish those responsible for the incident. La Prensa Grafica reports that the court’s binding ruling requires the state to pay $35,000 in damages to the families of the massacre’s 440 confirmed victims and $20,000 to each of the 48 known survivors.
  • El Universal reports that Enrique Peña Nieto announced a project aimed at reforming the country’s education system, which would establish an independent body charged with evaluating Mexican teachers. As the L.A. Times notes, the initiative also seeks to weaken the powerful teachers’ union in the country.
  • In an interview with the AP, Peña Nieto expressed optimism about the potential to pass several key reforms during his term, and vowed to continue the fight against drug trafficking despite recent marijuana legalization initiatives in the US.
  • Jacob Ostreicher, an American citizen imprisoned in Bolivia on money laundering charges, will face an appellate court today which he hopes will result in the dismissal of all charges against him. Ostreicher says that he is the victim of an extortion racket headed by legal officials in the country, and has named the Bolivian Interior Minister as one of them. AP profiles Ostreicher’s case, calling it “the biggest scandal yet” for Bolivian President Evo Morales.
  • La Nacion reports that Brazil will replace its ambassador to Argentina with Everto Vieira Vargas, currently serving as the country’s top envoy to Germany. The announcement was made after a meeting last Friday between Argentine President Cristina Kirchner and Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff, and comes a time of tense relations between the two countries, marked by objection to Argentine tariffs on Brazilian imports.
  • Colombia’s Caracol Radio reports that the Colombian Supreme Court has called for a criminal investigation into 12 congressmen and two former ministers over their support for a controversial justice reform bill earlier this year. The Court found that the officials altered the bill to grant themselves unconstitutional legal benefits.
  • The European Union is set to ratify free trade agreements with Peru and Colombia after three years of negotiations, AFP reports.

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