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Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Lawmakers flee Ecuador as political crisis hits

Raw Story, 25 April 2007

Ecuador sank into political crisis Tuesday in a power struggle over its president's reform program, as demonstrators hit the streets and dissenting opposition deputies fled abroad from charges of treason.

In a conflict dividing both the legislature and the judiciary, a prosecutor ordered the arrest of 24 deputies, nearly half of the 50 who the Constitutional Tribunal, the country's highest court, had ordered reinstated to Congress.

Outside the Congress, some 400 pro-government protestors rallied against the expelled legislators, with police firing tear gas in sporadic confrontations.

"The entire country is near war," said leftist party leader Gustavo Ramirez.

The right-wing opposition deputies were sacked in March over their refusal to go along with far-reaching constitutional reforms promoted by President Rafael Correa.

The 24 lawmakers are accused of plotting against the state.

Eleven of them fled to Bogota late Tuesday and asked for political asylum, Ecuadoran opposition congresswoman Gloria Gallardo said, adding that four more of them were on the way to the Colombian capital.

"We have come to Colombia, which is a sister-country, to ask for protection and political asylum," said Gallardo, who arrived on a flight from Quito together with 10 other deputies from the right-wing PRIAN party.

According to prosecutor Elsa Moreno, the deputies were suspected of sedition for "rising against the government, refusing to recognize the constitution, and impeding a meeting of the Congress."

The accusation followed Congress's dismissal of another group of officials, the country's nine Constitutional Tribunal justices, after these judges reinstated the 50 lawmakers who had opposed Correa's constitutional reforms.

The 50 were dismissed on March 7 for rejecting a court decision backing a national referendum in favor of rewriting the country's charter.

With the political opposition out of the way, voters then this month approved the convention by a five-to-one margin, giving Correa the go-ahead in his effort to revamp the legislature and other government structures to pursue his nationalist, socialist agenda.

But the battle opened a new political crisis for Ecuador, a chronically unstable country that has had eight presidents in a decade.

The crisis has set Correa on a collision course with the high court over its move to reinstate the deputies. Correa also backed Congress's vote Tuesday to oust the judges.

While he insisted the removal of the opposition lawmakers remain in force, he said late Tuesday however that he opposed the arrest order for the 24 accused of sedition.

He said that "as the one responsible for the peace of the people," he would tell the authorities to rescind the arrest order.

Opponents of the president claim he is following in the footsteps of Venezuela's firebrand leftist President Hugo Chavez, who successfully pushed for the election of a constituent assembly packed with his supporters in 1999.

Following the April 16 referendum, Ecuadorans will later this year be called to elect a national assembly to be tasked with writing a new constitution.

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