Ecuador Police Bar Suspended Lawmakers

The Associated Press
Thursday, March 8, 2007; 2:18 PM

QUITO, Ecuador -- Police surrounded Ecuador's Congress on Thursday to keep out dozens of lawmakers who were fired a day earlier by four electoral judges the lawmakers had sought to impeach in the latest constitutional crisis for the small Andean nation.

The four judges of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal accused the 57 legislators of interfering with a referendum on whether to rewrite the constitution.

Ecuador's new leftist President Rafael Correa, an admirer of Venezuela's firebrand leader Hugo Chavez, sided with the court and was pressing ahead with the referendum, a step the congressmen have called illegal.

The court ruling was part of a clash over a constitutional assembly sought by Correa, who wants to limit the power of a political class he blames for the country's problems.

The tribunal's action came after the 57 members of the 100-seat unicameral Congress signed a petition to start impeachment proceedings against the four judges who approved the referendum. The tribunal has seven members.

"President Correa has violated the constitution, also Congress, also the Supreme Electoral Tribunal. No one respects the law," said opposition lawmaker Carlos Larreategui.

Congress was unable to convene Thursday because it needs a quorum of 51.

The fired congressmen met in a hotel. As they were leaving, a crowd of 50 protesters armed with clubs shouted insults and threats.

Television showed dozens of protesters punching and beating opposition lawmaker Osvaldo Flores with clubs. One protester was injured when another congressman hit him with his car as he tried to flee.

Gloria Gallardo, one of the lawmakers who were supposedly suspended, called the tribunal's actions "illegal and unconstitutional" and said the 57 would continue in their posts.

"Congress is not a building. It's the legislators. Let this government know that the opposition is not a fragile opposition" like the one in Venezuela that allowed itself to be "smashed" by Chavez, she said.

Correa, who took office Jan. 15, says his proposed reforms aim to make elected officials more accountable.

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© 2007 The Associated Press