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Friday, March 09, 2007

Ecuador police surround Congress to keep out lawmakers suspended by electoral tribunal

IHT, March 8, 2007

QUITO, Ecuador: Dozens of police officers surrounded Ecuador's Congress Thursday to prevent a majority of lawmakers from entering as the politically unstable Andean nation descended into a constitutional crisis.

The 57 congressmen were fired Wednesday by the same four electoral judges they are seeking to impeach. The judges accused the lawmakers of interfering with a referendum on whether to rewrite the constitution.

Ecuador's new leftist President Rafael Correa, an admirer of Venezuela's firebrand leader Hugo Chavez, sided with the court and was pressing ahead with the referendum, a step the congressmen have called illegal.

Correa wants a constitutional assembly to limit the power of a political class he blames for Ecuador's problems.

The seven-member tribunal voted to oust the congressmen after 57 members of the 100-seat unicameral Congress signed a petition to start impeachment proceedings against the four court members who approved the referendum.

"The impostors and phonies are finished. They've been defeated. No matter what they do, the referendum and the assembly are irreversible," Correa told his supporters from the balcony of the presidential palace Thursday.

But opposition congressman Carlos Larreategui said Thursday that all sides were to blame: "President Correa has violated the constitution, also Congress, also the Supreme Electoral Tribunal. No one respects the law,"

Congress was unable to convene Thursday because it needs a quorum of 51 lawmakers.

The fired congressmen met in a hotel and as they were leaving, a crowd of 50 protesters armed with clubs shouted insults.

Television images showed dozens of protesters punching and beating opposition congressman Osvaldo Flores with clubs. One protester was injured when another lawmaker hit him with a car as he tried to flee the angry crowd.

Gloria Gallardo, one of the lawmakers supposedly suspended, called the tribunal's actions "illegal and unconstitutional" and said the 57 lawmakers would continue in their posts.

"Congress is not a building. It's the legislators. Let this government know that the opposition is not a fragile opposition" like the one in Venezuela that allowed itself to be "smashed" by Chavez, she said.

Correa, who took office Jan. 15, says his proposed reforms aim to make elected officials more accountable.

Constitutional experts said both the lawmakers and the court were violating the country's charter — a common occurrence in this small Andean nation, where Congress has illegally dismissed three elected presidents in the last decade after they lost popularity. Correa is Ecuador's eighth president in 10 years.

"The constitutional framework has been broken," said legal analyst Pablo Guerrero, who argued that the election tribunal has the authority to dismiss public employees and appointees accused of interfering in an election process, but not elected officials.

The vague wording of Ecuador's constitutions has provoked clashes between presidents, lawmakers and the courts since democracy was restored in 1979 after a decade of dictatorship.

A separate Constitutional Tribunal might eventually resolve the new dispute, but its rulings have often been ignored in the past.

Correa has called Congress "a sewer of corruption." But 80 percent of the congressmen who took office in January are first-term lawmakers who say they should have a chance to show they are honest.

Correa, a U.S.-educated economist, ran as a political outsider, earning support from Ecuadoreans fed up with the political establishment.

Ecuadorean lawmakers in the past have engaged in fist fights, cut the cord of an opponent's microphone and hurled ashtrays. One pulled out a pistol and shot a colleague.

And in an episode captured on television, a drunken congressman who is now mayor of Guayaquil, Ecuador's largest city, staggered over to an opponent and tried to urinate on him.


Associated Press Writer Monte Hayes in Lima, Peru, contributed to the report

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