US concerned over removal of top Salvadorean judges

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People hold a banner reading "Bukele coup plotter" as they protest against the removal of Supreme Court judges and the Attorney General by Salvadoran congress, in San Salvador, El Salvador, May 2, 2021.Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
A small group of protesters accused Mr Bukele of being a "dictator" and a "coup monger"

Top US officials have expressed their concern over the removal from office of El Salvador's attorney general and five judges from the Central American country's Supreme Court.

The judges and the attorney general were dismissed by the newly elected National Assembly which is dominated by the party of President Nayib Bukele.

The opposition in El Salvador said the move was a "coup" by Mr Bukele.

Mr Bukele dismissed the criticism, saying "we're cleaning our house".

Why does it matter?

Mr Bukele was elected president in February 2019 on a promise to tackle rampant gang violence and political corruption. He won more votes than all the other candidates combined.

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
President Bukele, 39, is often seen wearing a baseball cap back to front

His approval rating for the government's handling of the coronavirus has been high and the media-savvy president is popular with many Salvadoreans.

In elections in February, his New Ideas party won 54 out of 84 seats in the Legislative Assembly. Together with its allies in parliament, it now has more than the two-thirds of votes needed under the constitution to make sweeping changes.

Critics say the removal of the five judges and the attorney general show that Mr Bukele is using this new majority in parliament to remove those who oppose him.

It is not the first time that Mr Bukele has been accused of overstepping his powers. Last year, he was widely criticised for using armed troops to take over the Legislative Assembly - then controlled by the opposition - in a bid to force the approval of his budget.

What happened?

On Saturday, El Salvador's parliament met for its first session since President Bukele's election victory.

They voted on a motion to remove all five judges from the constitutional chamber of the Supreme Court.

All members of President Bukele's New Ideas party and its allies - who between them hold 64 out of 84 seats - voted in favour of the motion, while 19 opposition lawmakers voted against it and one abstained.

Hours later, the lawmakers also voted to remove Attorney General Raúl Melara from office.

Why were they removed?

New Ideas lawmaker Elisa Rosales argued that the judges had to be removed because they had stood in the way of the government's strategy to stem the coronavirus pandemic.

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
New judges were swiftly sworn in after the dismissal of the five

Last June, the five judges had declared a stay-at-home order issued by President Bukele unconstitutional, prompting his wrath. Ms Rosales said that their ouster would protect the public.

But opposition lawmakers denounced the judges' dismissal. Anabel Bollose from the left-wing FMLN party called it a "coup".

The opposition has long accused President Bukele of having authoritarian tendencies and of undermining El Salvador's separation of power and its system of checks and balances.

What has the reaction been?

Human Rights Watch described the move as an "assault on democracy" which broke the rule of law and sought to concentrate "all power" in the hands of President Bukele.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken called President Bukele on Sunday to express his "grave concern".

The State Department said that Mr Blinken had told Mr Bukele that "an independent judiciary is essential to democratic governance".

US Vice-President Kamala Harris also expressed her concerns in a tweet on Sunday.

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites.View original tweet on Twitter

What does President Bukele say?

Mr Bukele dismissed the criticism from abroad, tweeting that "with all due respect: We're cleaning our house ...and that is none of your business".

He had earlier celebrated the destitution of the judges, writing that "we're finally building a new history!".