The Honduran Congress voted to remove four of the Central American country’s 15 Supreme Court justices after they rejected President Porfirio Lobo’s bid to require that police undergo lie detector tests.
Ninety-seven of the 128 lawmakers present voted to oust the justices today in a legislative session that ended around 4 a.m., Elvin Mendoza, a spokesman for Congress, said in a phone interview from Tegucigalpa. The vote took place while members of the military stood outside the congressional building throughout the night, Mendoza said.
The move highlighted the struggles between the central government, judiciary and armed forces three years after then-President Manuel Zelaya was rounded up during the night and put on a military plane out of the country. The chief of the armed forces, Rene Osorio Canales, pledged today that he would “maintain permanent loyalty to the three branches of the government,” according to a statement from the presidency.
“It is being called a judicial coup,” said Adrienne Pine, an assistant professor at American University in Washington who has studied Honduras for 15 years, in a phone interview.
Lobo said the Supreme Court’s Nov. 27 ruling to reject the police polygraph testing was “illegal.”
“There is something unjust here,” Lobo said in a Dec. 10 statement. “A decision of the four members of the constitutional chamber of the Supreme Court should be able to guarantee something as important for the country as a purification of the police.”
A series of tests for police officers, including polygraph and drug examinations, was approved by the Honduran Congress in May in an effort to reduce corruption among national security forces. Lobo said Congress’s approval of the measures was “hope for a restoration of the faith of the Honduran people in the national police.”
Three replacement judges were appointed to the constitutional chamber this morning by Congress and the fourth will be added soon, said a spokesman for the Supreme Court who asked not to be identified because he isn’t authorized to discuss the issue publicly. Due to the lack of a unanimous vote in the constitutional chamber’s Nov. 27 ruling, the constitutionality of the lie-detector measures will be voted on by all of the court’s 15 magistrates Dec. 14, he said.
Zelaya was ousted by soldiers at gunpoint in 2009 after he defied a Supreme Court order to stop his push for a non-binding referendum on a constitutional rewrite. Lobo, whose election several Latin American governments refused to recognize, has warned of a repeat of the 2009 coup in recent days, saying that the court’s vote to deny police testing and biased media coverage could result in instability.
“This collusion is a threat to institutionalism and is very delicate,” Lobo said Dec. 8. “It is an indication that some people want to return to a situation similar to that of 2009.”
Lobo added that if efforts to destabilize continued, “we are going to have problems” that will require “the people of Honduras to defend its rights.”
“I don’t think it was entirely clear which camp had the military on their side but it is now crystal clear that they are with President Lobo,” Pine said. “The side that has the military ultimately has the power.”