Tensions run high in Honduras after lawmakers sack judges

Military called out to guard Congress building while four new Supreme Court justices were being sworn in

Troops guard Congress Tuesday night in Tegucigalpa
Troops guard Congress Tuesday night in TegucigalpaG. Amador (EFE)

Military officers were called out onto the streets on Wednesday as lawmakers in the tiny Central American nation swore in four new Supreme Court justices to replace their predecessors, fired after they issued a controversial ruling against a bill aimed at cleaning up corruption in the country's police force.

With political tensions running high, Speaker Juan Orlando Hernández on Tuesday night asked the head of the military to call out troops to surround Congress and block the streets leading to it while lawmakers debated a proposal to hold a referendum on a police cleanup program. Also included in the discussions was an internal report prepared on the conduct of the justices serving on the country's Supreme Court.

On November 27, the top court ruled that a bill that proposes strict background checks on police officers, as well as other measures aimed at screening candidates, was unconstitutional - a decision that angered President Porfirio Lobo.

Cleaning up the police force is a key elements of Lobo's government platform.

"We cannot support a move that creates insecurity throughout the country"

Congress decided to fire four of the five justices and replace them on Wednesday - a move that in turn has angered the opposition.

Mauricio Villeda, the Liberal Party presidential candidate, said that Congress did not have the power to fire and replace Supreme Court justices on a whim.

"We cannot support a move that creates insecurity throughout the country," he told the Tegucigalpa daily El Heraldo . "I am sure that the international community and the diplomatic corps are still in a state of shock over what happened in the national Congress."

About 50 soldiers and 25 police officers showed up in Congress to keep anyone from entering the building while lawmakers met. They were still at their posts Wednesday morning when the new justices were sworn in.

Lobo has been battling with the Supreme Court justices, whom he accuses of catering to powerful business interests. The president claims that the same people who ousted the then-president, Manuel Zelaya, in a 2009 coup are now plotting against him.

Zelaya was deposed when he ignored a Supreme Court order to cancel a referendum on his plans to reform the Constitution.

Drug trafficking and violence have spiked since Zelaya's ouster in Honduras, where two-thirds of the 8.2 million people live in poverty. With an annual homicide rate of 91 per 100,000 residents, the country is one of the most violent in the Americas.

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