Morales demands 4 Supreme Court justices resign

Martin Arostegui, Washington Times, May 25, 2007

SANTA CRUZ, Bolivia -- President Evo Morales demanded the resignation of four Supreme Court justices this week in a growing campaign against Bolivia's judicial system, which he accuses of hampering his efforts to nationalize key parts of the economy and remake Bolivia as a socialist state.

"We must clear corruption from our justice system, which is a national embarrassment," Mr. Morales said in a speech Monday.

He also accused the judicial system of stealing $300 million and of "liberating delinquents, thieves and narcotraffickers."

Supreme Court Justice Juan Jose Gonzales Osio resigned this week, citing "reiterated questioning of the work of the judicial power."

Chief Justice Hector Sandoval accused Mr. Morales of "persecuting" courts, and the Supreme Court issued a statement calling the president's latest attacks "slanderous."

Tensions with the courts have been simmering since last year when Mr. Morales appointed four temporary Supreme Court justices to fill vacancies.

Earlier this month, the Constitutional Court, a separate judicial body, ruled the appointments unconstitutional.

The showdown between Mr. Morales and the courts has spilled over onto the streets, with Morales supporters throwing red paint on the Supreme Court and a group of miners using dynamite to blast their way into the Constitutional Court to protest a ruling against a government nationalization effort.

"We are not going to permit any wise man of the judicial power to plan the fall of our government" said Roberto Segovia, a leading representative of Bolivia's ruling Movement Toward Socialism (MAS), which is also led by Mr. Morales.

"We request that the Constitutional Court be shut down until a new constitution is approved" said Rene Navarro, a MAS lawmaker in Bolivia's Congress.

Mr. Morales, Bolivia's first indigenous president, was elected in December 2005 on a radical platform to redistribute income from mining and energy, mainly natural gas, to the nation's poor. He is a close ally of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who shares a similar ideology.

Sen. Oscar Ortiz of the conservative Podemos party called Mr. Morales' latest attacks on the judiciary a "dirty war."

Another Morales opponent, Senate leader Jose Villavicencio, said the government was "pressuring" independent state powers in order to "destabilize" them.

The opposition appeared to be caught off guard this week -- not only by the flare-up over Supreme Court justices, but also by a number of other Morales initiatives, which followed a period of relative calm in which negotiations with the government appeared to be progressing.

Mr. Morales took steps this week to eliminate federal financing for political campaigns and divert the money to help the "handicapped." He also threatened to prosecute conservative Gov. Ruben Costas of the eastern district of Santa Cruz for financing opposition groups.

Mr. Ortiz charged, "those who use unlimited amounts of public funds for publicity and to attack the opposition are the government."

Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera insisted that the ban on federal financing would go ahead. "You cannot compare actions of the government with activities of a political party. Campaign financing for the parties will be suspended," he said.

Some analysts point to outside support Mr. Morales' MAS gets from Mr. Chavez, the Venezuelan president who is generous in sharing his nation's oil revenues with leftist governments in Latin America.

According to press reports, Venezuela has funded Bolivia's state-run television and radio to the tune of $2 million and given Mr. Morales $30 million to subsidize some municipalities.

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