The Ecuadorian Congress has violated the principle of judicial independence by purging nearly all of the Supreme Court justices, Human Rights Watch said today. In a special session called by President Lucio Gutiérrez last week, 52 members of the 100-seat Congress voted to replace 27 of the 31 justices with their own political allies.

“Judicial independence is an essential ingredient of a functioning democracy,” said José Miguel Vivanco, executive director of the Americas Division at Human Rights Watch. “The fact that President Gutiérrez and his congressional allies could purge the Supreme Court clearly shows that it is a missing ingredient in Ecuador today.”

Ecuador is party to human rights treaties that require it to safeguard the independence of its judiciary—including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the American Convention on Human Rights.

The principle of judicial independence is also a central feature of the Inter-American Democratic Charter, which the foreign ministers of Ecuador and 33 other members of the Organization of American States adopted in 2001. The Charter defines the “[e]ssential elements of representative democracy” to include “access to and the exercise of power in accordance with the rule of law” and “the separation of powers and independence of the branches of government.”

The 1998 Ecuadorian Constitution also establishes the principle judicial independence and separation of powers. It specifically establishes that vacancies on the Supreme Court should be filled by the Court itself. Unlike the country’s previous constitution, it does not grant Congress authority to impeach justices.

President Gutiérrez, who was elected in 2002, claimed that the court was loyal to his political opponents, who recently tried and failed to hold impeachment hearings against him. The replacement justices were selected from the political parties that successfully opposed the president’s impeachment.

The overhaul of the Supreme Court is one in a series of measures that have consolidated control over the justice system in the hands of the president and his allies. Last month, Congress also replaced the majority of judges on the country’s Electoral Court and Constitutional Court.

President Gutiérrez has stated that the new Supreme Court will be a temporary arrangement until a constitutional amendment is proposed next year that will transform the judiciary.

“Rather than seeking to control of the Supreme Court, the president and Congress should be taking immediate steps to strengthen its independence,” Vivanco said.