TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras — In the resumption of Honduras' constitutional crisis, a criminal court judge Monday charged 50 members of Congress with the criminal offense of "altering the constitution" by voting to dismiss five justices of the Supreme Court and naming five new justices in their place.
Judge Marco Antonio Lanza also asked Congress to strip the 50 deputies of their legal immunity from criminal prosecution so that police can arrest them. That is unlikely to happen, however, because the 50 form a majority of the 82-member unicameral legislature.
Lanza's action was the latest development in a conflict between the congressional majority and President Roberto Suazo Cordova over the issue of who shall sit on the Supreme Court. And despite the controversy's constitutional implications, the fight is mostly about who will be the governing Liberal Party's candidate in November's presidential elections.
Suazo Cordova cannot legally be a candidate to succeed himself, but his critics charge that he is maneuvering to handpick his party's candidate to succeed him.
Congress was in chaos Monday. Lanza's charges were read to the body by a legislative secretary. Rival deputies debated its legality, sprinkling their oratory with scatological insults.
Radio news reporters shouted into microphones, broadcasting blow-by-blow accounts. American televison reporters, camera equipment in tow, scurried around looking for English-speaking deputies.
Meanwhile, the armed forces, seen by both sides as the potential arbiter in the conflict, pledged to remain neutral.
"It's one of the desires of our people that the democratic system work as it should," said Gen. Walter Lopez, the armed forces chief. "We have stayed on the margins."
The U.S. Embassy treated the subject gingerly. Ambassador John D. Negroponte commented only that he hopes that elections will take place as scheduled.
The United States has poured millions of dollars in economic and military aid into Honduras to bolster the nation's fledgling democracy and a make it a counterweight to Marxist Nicaragua, Honduras' neighbor to the south.
The crisis began last week when Congress voted to remove five Supreme Court justices loyal to President Suazo Cordova. Congress accused the five justices of corruption.
Action Declared Illegal
Suazo Cordova retaliated by declaring Congress' action illegal and jailing Ramon Valladares Soto, whom Congress had named the new chief justice. Valladares, who was arrested on a warrant signed by Judge Lanza--the magistrate who has now lodged criminal charges against the 50 congressmen--spent his fourth day in prison Monday on charges of treason. Four other new justices named by Congress are in hiding from similar warrants.
After a weekend lull, Congress refused to withdraw the charges it ordered against the Supreme Court. At that point, Lanza, acting on orders of the original Supreme Court, handed down the charges against the 50 deputies, accusing them of "attacking the independence" of the nation's highest tribunal.
"This is an incident of grave consequence for Honduran democracy," declared Efrain Bu Giron, president of Congress and a dissident member of Suazo Cordova's Liberal Party. Bu Giron, one of the 50 deputies charged by Lanza, named a seven-member committee to draw up a response to the charges.
Bu Giron is the leader of Suazo Cordova's adversaries in the constitutional crisis. He is campaigning for the presidential nomination of the Liberal Party, and Suazo Cordova opposes his candidacy.
The president's critics accuse Suazo Cordova of trying to influence the selection of presidential candidates by both major parties--the opposition National Party as well as the president's Liberals--through control of the five-member Electoral Tribunal, whose members include the chief justice of the Supreme Court.
The Electoral Tribunal is charged with settling party squabbles, including disagreements over the delegate lists to the nominating conventions that are scheduled to meet soon.
Although most members of Congress said Monday's charges against the 50 lawmakers carry no force because deputies are immune to prosecution, there were rumors Monday of Byzantine maneuvers under way to make the arrests possible.
Several deputies expressed worries that Suazo Cordova's supporters would try to convene a clandestine session of Congress with substitute deputies replacing the 50 who stand accused of treason. Such a session would then vote to strip the 50 of immunity, according to the worriers.
"This is all a reflection of the collective lunacy of the executive (branch)," said Jose Azcona, a foe of Suazo Cordova within the Liberal Party. Like Bu Giron, Azcona wants to be the Liberals' presidential candidate, but he is also opposed by the president.
Suazo Cordova favors the candidacy of Oscar Mejia Arellano, 70, a former interior minister and a crony of the president. Mejia is now one of Honduras' three vice presidents. Suazo Cordova's foes in Congress have been threatening to block Mejia's candidacy on the grounds that he stood in for Suazo Cordova for a time in 1983, when the president was sidelined by a heart attack.
Under Honduran law, no one who has served as president may run for the office.