December 14, 2012

'Technical' coup against Supreme Court (Part 1)

"They gave a coup to the court"
La Prensa headline, Wednesday, December 12, 2012

I woke up Wednesday morning to a newspaper with a 2-inch headline which said that the Honduran Congress had executed a "technical" coup d'etat against the Supreme Court. I also woke up to no electrical power, just as on the morning of June 28, 2009. While short power outages are nothing unusual in Honduras, this one lasted all day. Many have been feeling a sense of deja vu lately with the events in the news. The actions and accusations flying around have been very similar to pre-June 28, 2009. I wanted to see what the television and online news were reporting! Did we have another coup in Honduras?! With constantly updated news and a series of more annoying cable and internet outages, it took me a couple of days to get this done.


Last fall when the stuff hit the international fan about crime in Honduras with the UN homicide report, there was a lot of hot air flying around with promises of cleaning up the police department in six months. Initially the police were responsible for cleaning their own house, which everyone knew was going to go nowhere because corruption goes to the highest level of the police. A new independent organization was set up, the DNIE, in typical fashion with no budget, few personnel, and basically no powers. Even back in January 2012, there were claims that the manner in which 'purification' was being implemented was unconstitutional. (See the 'Purification' section of this article.)

Congress passed a badly needed police purification law last May. Very few criminal cases against police are ever prosecuted and fewer are successfully prosecuted. It has been well documented and it is widely known that many police are directly involved in corruption, robberies, kidnappings, drug trafficking, and even murder, as well as being under the control of organized crime factions. Police under criminal investigation and even those with pending criminal cases often continue working, wearing a uniform, and carrying a gun. (See my crime series beginning October 2011 and a series of documented police crimes in November 2011.)

The law provided the ability to test police for drug use, administer polygraph and psychological tests as well as audit their finances and to remove those who don't pass the tests. It also provided for paying them for one year after dismissal. The law expired in November 25, 2012, (with very little action taken [article in english]) but President Lobo wanted to extend the law for another six months. Only two weeks ago did officials finally begin testing police in La Ceiba, the third largest city in Honduras and the city with the highest murder rate in the country.

Potential targets of those firings filed appeals with the Supreme Court. On November 27, the Constitutional Chamber, in a 4-1 decision, declared the law unconstitutional because it does not allow for the right of police to defend themselves against the charges, i.e., there is no due process. As provided by law, the issue was to go before the entire 15-member Supreme Court for a final decision on Wednesday because the initial decision was not unanimous.

After the preliminary decision, and as they have done in the past, both President Lobo and the President of Congress, Juan Orlando Hernández, Nacionalista Party presidential candidate, began talking about "investigating" the judges and other methods of getting control over the court and their decisions, like a referendum to take the decision to the people [in english]. This was the seventh time that the court had declared the current administration's projects unconstitutional, including the charter cities law. Both functionaries accused the court of being "against the people" and "against police purification" as well as being "on the side of the criminals".

The obligatory pre-coup coup claim diversion

President Pepe Lobo
On Friday, December 7, Honduran President Pepe Lobo, while officiating at military promotions, claimed that businessman Jorge Canahuati, owner of La Prensa and El Heraldo newspapers, along with two other unnamed businessmen, was plotting a coup against him. This wasn't the first time that Lobo has made vague claims of coup or other plots [english] against him, but it was the first time that he named a name.

In particular, he accused Canahuati of trying to destabilize the government through various news articles reporting interference with the Supreme Court by other factions of government. Canahuati denied the charges, calling Lobo's statements "reckless, unfounded and intimidating" and said that Lobo's actions were "endangering freedom of expression". Lobo, like President Zelaya before him, has complained and tried various tactics to try to control the (bad) news in Honduras. A La Prensa editorial characterized Lobo's accusation as a 'curtain of smoke' to divert attention from the serious problems of the country. During the past week, Lobo has had almost daily public meetings and events with the military, photo ops calculated to show that he has their support.

Congress acts with lightning speed

On Sunday, December 9, members of Congress met (highly unusual to meet on a Sunday!) and issued an announcement about a new plebiscite and referendum law (revising the constitutional amendment they passed in 2011). This variation would allow "the people", the congress, or the President to propose issues which change the constitution, including the 'articles in stone' such as presidential terms and form of government. The proposed law would prevent the court from overturning any such decisions on constitutional grounds.

On Monday night, December 10, after a long day of budget review, the referendum law was discussed in the middle of the night. With a vote of 63 in favor, two against, Congress also voted to give themselves the power to investigate the conduct of judges. Much of the opposition party (Liberales) had already expressed their disapproval and had left the building.

Lawmakers at work
Congressional photos: El Heraldo

Early Tuesday morning, December 11, a congressional committee was named to investigate the judges' actions. In what ultimately was a 21-hour session, the Tuesday session was reconvened at 1:30 a.m. on Wednesday morning, the results of the 'investigation' were reported to Congress. One congresswoman stated that "not even Scotland Yard investigates that fast!". A motion was immediately made to fire the judges and at 4:00 a.m. the Congress approved the action with a vote of 97 in favor [voting list in español]. Throughout all of this, the military marched outside the building, supposedly providing protection for the Congress.

Long night
After another lengthy recess in which 'negotiations' (more on that later) among political parties occurred, at 6:13 a.m. Wednesday morning, December 12, the congress nominated and approved [article in español] four replacement justices, three of whom were waiting in the wings to be sworn in. The swearing in ceremony occurred at 6:21 a.m. The fourth judge will be sworn in next week when he travels to the capital. In the normal process, 45 nominations for the Supreme Court are developed through a lengthy process by a committee which includes representatives of civil society, workers', and business. The 15 members of the Supreme Court are selected by Congress from those final nominations and sworn in for a period of seven years. The constitution specifies that the judges can only be removed by specific actions, death, incapacitation, resignation, or legal causes. The four replacement judges were included on the list of 45 nominations in 2009.

All of this occurred with the speed of light in the same Congress which in three years has not even hinted at developing a law to provide for impeachment of the president, the lack of which resulted in the worst political crisis Honduras has ever had.


What does this mean? Why did they do this and who was behind it? Trying to keep my articles to a more reasonable length, all that and more will be discussed in the next articles.

'Technical' coup against Supreme Court (Part 2)

'Technical' coup against Supreme Court (Part 3)

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