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57 legislators kept out of Ecuador's Congress

March 09, 2007|From the Associated Press

QUITO, ECUADOR — Police surrounded the National Congress on Thursday to keep out 57 Ecuadorean lawmakers who were fired a day earlier by four electoral judges the legislators had sought to impeach.

The four judges of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal accused the legislators of interfering with a referendum on whether to rewrite the constitution.

Ecuador's new leftist president, Rafael Correa, sided with the court and was pressing ahead with the referendum, a step the lawmakers have called illegal.

The court ruling was part of a clash over a constitutional assembly sought by Correa, who wants to limit the power of a political class he blames for the country's problems.

The tribunal's action came after the 57 members of the 100-seat unicameral Congress signed a petition to start impeachment proceedings against the four judges who approved the referendum. The tribunal has seven members.

"President Correa has violated the constitution, also Congress, also the Supreme Electoral Tribunal. No one respects the law," opposition lawmaker Carlos Larreategui said.

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

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

Television showed dozens of protesters punching opposition lawmaker Oswaldo Flores and beating him with clubs. One protester was injured when another congressman hit him with his car.

Gloria Gallardo, one of the ousted lawmakers, called the tribunal's actions "illegal and unconstitutional" and said the 57 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," 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 -- not an uncommon occurrence in this politically unstable 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 tribunal had 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 Constitution has provoked clashes among 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 often have been ignored.

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