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El Salvador: IBAHRI condemns removal of attorney general and top judges by Bukele administration

Thursday 13 May 2021

The International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI) strongly condemns the dismissal of El Salvador’s Attorney General, Raúl Melara and five magistrates of the country’s Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court of Justice on 1 May 2021.

IBAHRI Co-Chair and former Justice of the High Court of Australia (1996–2006), the Hon Michael Kirby AC CMG stated: ‘The IBAHRI unreservedly condemns the removal from their posts, by new members of El Salvador’s Legislative Assembly, of the Attorney General and five judges who sat on the Supreme Court’s Constitutional Chamber. These are grave violations of the rule of law, particularly as the Supreme Court declared the dismissal of its magistrates unconstitutional. We remind El Salvador’s Legislative Assembly of the United Nations Basic Principles on the Independence of the Judiciary, in particular Principle 18 that asserts, “[j]udges shall be subject to suspension or removal only for reasons of incapacity or behaviour that renders them unfit to discharge their duties.” These recent dismissals have not followed due process and puts in peril El Salvador’s judicial legitimacy and integrity.’

On 1 May 2021, representatives in the Salvadoran Congress voted 64-19 in favour of the removal of the Attorney General Raúl Melara and five magistrates of the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court of Justice, in what is seen by many in the international community as a dangerous assumption of power orchestrated by President Nayib Bukele. The unprecedented vote marked the first session of the legislative assembly controlled by President Bukele’s ‘Nuevas Ideas’ (New Ideas) party and ally, the Grand Alliance for National Unity party, after midterm elections saw them secure a more than two-thirds majority in the unicameral legislature.

The reason given for the dismissal of the judges was to protect public health. A Nuevas Ideas spokesperson is reported as saying the judges’ decisions had suppressed the government’s COVID-19 health strategy and so their removal was a necessary measure to curb the ongoing effects of the pandemic. However, this justification has been rejected by commentators as a pretext for cementing the already significant political control of President Bukele, who won a landslide victory in the 2019 presidential elections. With the judges expelled, he now controls all three branches of state: the executive, legislature and the judiciary.

The new judges were swiftly sworn in, as was Rodolfo Delgado as the new Attorney General.

IBAHRI Co-chair and Immediate Past Secretary General of the Swedish Bar Association, Anne Ramberg Dr Jur hc, commented: ‘Alongside El Salvador, the IBAHRI is concerned by reports of perversions of judicial independence by congressional members in the Central America countries of Guatemala and Mexico. Collectively, they reveal a decline in meritocratic appointments of magistrates and are evidence of the mounting attack against the last line of defence in the fight against corruption and impunity. We call on the El Salvadoran government to strengthen democratic governance in the state and to restore essential checks and balances on power.’

Recently, in Central America there have been cases concerning congressional interference in the judiciary. On 23 April 2021, Mexico’s Congress passed the ‘Zaldívar Law’, a judicial reform bill that extends the tenure of Supreme Court President Arturo Zaldívar, for an additional two years. The move contravenes Mexico’s Constitution. In Guatemala, Congress has refused to swear in the corruption-fighting independent magistrate Gloria Porras. A move viewed as an attempt to interfere with the judicial selection process and to protect powerful individuals from corruption prosecutions.


Notes to the Editor

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  2. The International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI), established in 1995 under Founding Honorary President Nelson Mandela, is an autonomous and financially independent entity, working to promote, protect and enforce human rights under a just rule of law, and to preserve the independence of the judiciary and the legal profession worldwide.
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  4. The International Bar Association (IBA), the global voice of the legal profession, is the foremost organisation for international legal practitioners, bar associations and law societies. Established in 1947, shortly after the creation of the United Nations, it was born out of the conviction that an organisation made up of the world's bar associations could contribute to global stability and peace through the administration of justice.

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