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US Expresses Concern Over El Salvador Vote to Remove Judges, Attorney General

People hold signs reading "Respect the constitution," as they protest against the removal of Supreme Court judges and the Attorney General by El Salvador's congress, in San Salvador, May 2, 2021.
People hold signs reading "Respect the constitution," as they protest against the removal of Supreme Court judges and the Attorney General by El Salvador's congress, in San Salvador, May 2, 2021.

The vote by El Salvador's new congress to remove the magistrates of the Supreme Court's constitutional chamber and the attorney general on the newly elected legislative body's very first day drew concern and condemnation from multinational groups and the United States.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken spoke to Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele on Sunday about the previous day's vote, saying "that an independent judiciary is essential to democratic governance," the State Department said.

Bukele's New Ideas party won 56 out of the 84 seats in the Legislative Assembly in February elections that pushed aside the country's traditional parties, weakened by corruption scandals.

The dominant electoral performance raised concerns that Bukele would seek to change the court, which along with the previous congress, had been the only obstacles that the very popular leader faced. The vote Saturday to remove the five magistrates was 64 lawmakers in favor, 19 opposed and one abstention.

Now with effective control of the congress and the high court, few if any checks remain on Bukele's power.

He swept into office in 2019 as a break from the country's corrupt and troubled traditional parties, though his political career had started in the leftist Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front.

Even before the assembly was in his sway, Bukele sought to bully and intimidate El Salvador's other democratic institutions. In February 2020, he sent heavily armed soldiers to surround the congress when it delayed voting on a security loan he had sought.

Bukele clashed repeatedly with the constitutional chamber of the Supreme Court during the pandemic. When it ruled his obligatory stay-at-home order unconstitutional last June, Bukele said, "The court has just ordered us to murder dozens of thousands of Salvadorans within five days."

Blinken also expressed concern about the removal of Attorney General Raúl Melara, saying he was fighting corruption and has been "an effective partner of efforts to combat crime in both the United States and El Salvador," State Department spokesman Ned Price said. Melara had been selected by the previous congress and was an outspoken Bukele critic.

Blinken said the U.S. is committed to supporting democratic institutions in El Salvador.

In a statement, the general secretariat of the Organization of American States criticized the dismissal of the magistrates and the attorney general.

Bukele appeared to be unmoved. He said he felt very satisfied with the congress' first session and said it was beginning of the change he had promised for the country.

"I know they can't do it all in a day," Bukele said via Twitter. "I know that most of the Salvadoran people eagerly await the second session."

Juan Sánchez Toledo, an unemployed man in the capital, San Salvador, backed Bukele.

"I was already hoping for it," he said of the vote. "They promised to get rid of all of the corrupt. We'll see if they do it. I hope that things change for the good of the people."

During the Trump administration, Bukele's tendencies toward disrespecting the separation of powers was largely ignored as El Salvador's homicide rate dropped and fewer Salvadorans tried to migrate to the United States.

But the administration of President Joe Biden has appeared more wary. When Bukele made an unannounced trip to Washington in February, administration officials declined to meet with him. Bukele said he had not sought a meeting.

Bukele appeared to respond in kind last month when he refused to meet with a visiting senior U.S. diplomat.

Governing party lawmakers defended the decision, saying the court had put private interests above the health and welfare of the people. The opposition called it a power grab by a president seeking total control.

The magistrates' replacements and new Attorney General Rodolfo Antonio Delgado assumed their new positions under police protection Saturday.

El Salvador's constitution states that the magistrates of the Supreme Court of Justice may be removed by the Legislative Assembly for specific causes established by law. Both the election and dismissal of its magistrates must have the support of two-thirds of the lawmakers.

Aldo Cader Camilot, one of the ousted magistrates, published a resignation letter hours after the vote on social media. In it, he rejected any suggestion that he was tied to a political party or doing the bidding of economic interests.

Diego García-Sayán, the United Nations' special investigator on the independence of legal systems, was blunt: "I condemn the steps the political power is taking to dismantle and weaken the judicial independence of the magistrates by removing the members of the constitutional chamber."

The Jesuit-led Central American University José Simeón Cañas said in a statement that "in this dark hour for our already weak democracy, the UCA calls for the defense of what was built after the war at the cost of so much effort and so many lives: a society where saying 'no' to power is not a fantasy."

Civil society groups under the umbrella of "Salvadorans against authoritarianism" called for public demonstrations to condemn the congressional action.