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(Washington, D.C.) — By voting to overhaul the composition of the body that nominates and dismisses judges, the Argentine Congress has undermined safeguards of judicial independence in the country, Human Rights Watch said today.

The new measures, proposed in a bill by Senator Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, were approved by Congress late on Wednesday evening after a nine-hour debate.

"Whatever the ruling party’s intentions, this reform will increase the vulnerability of Argentina’s courts to political pressure," said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. "It's a big disappointment given all that this government has done to restore the credibility of Argentine justice and strengthen the rule of law."

The Argentine Constitution, which dates from 1994, stipulates that there should be a balance between legislators, judges, lawyers and academics on the Council of the Judiciary, which is the body responsible for selecting judges for appointment by the executive branch. This balance was considered essential to shelter judges from the sudden shifts in the country’s political climate.

The new law reduces the Council from 20 to 13 members, while increasing the proportional representation of politicians. They will now outnumber the professionals and experts on the Council for the first time since the body was created in 1997.

The governing party also increases its weight on the new Council. Together with the executive branch appointee it will hold five of the 13 votes. Since the Council's decisions are taken by a two–thirds majority when the selection or dismissal of judges is being debated, the governing party will be in a position to veto candidates for the judiciary and to block dismissals.

Of equal concern is a change in the rule governing the quorum in the Council, which could allow it to function without any participation at all by the judges, lawyers or academics. With the new composition, the six legislators and the representative of the executive branch could hold sessions all on their own.

In a letter to Argentine President Néstor Kirchner urging him to seek amendments to the bill , Human Rights Watch cited the European Charter on the Statute for Judges (1998), which recommends that at least half of those who sit on independent bodies responsible for the selection and dismissal of judges should themselves be “judges elected by their peers following methods guaranteeing the widest representation of the judiciary.”

However, in a reply on behalf of the Argentine government, the head of the cabinet, Dr. Alberto Fernández, defended the idea that those elected by popular vote should hold a majority on the Council, rather than those who had no citizens' mandate. While explaining why in his view the legislators should hold a majority, he does not explain, however, why there should not be parity between elected and non-elected members. By insisting that the legislators should have a majority, he implicitly rejects the standard of balance that the European Charter adopted as a safeguard to protect judicial independence.

The creation of the Council of the Judiciary in the Constitution of 1994 was a response to abuses that resulted from a system in which the president appointed judges with the agreement of the Senate. Judges were dismissed after an impeachment process conducted by Congress. Judges were often chosen for their political affiliation rather than their professional qualifications, and dismissal hearings were criticized for being highly politicized.

It was argued at the time that an independent council balanced between legislators from both government and opposition benches and non-elected members from the judiciary, the bar, and academia, was the strongest safeguard against political interference. By altering this balance in favor of the majority party and the executive branch, the law approved today goes back on that principle.

The Justice Council has been widely criticized for inefficiency and lack of transparency. Civil society monitors, including the Argentine Federation of Bar Associations, have argued however that the reforms do not solve the problems they are intended to address. In its letter to President Kirchner, Human Rights Watch said that the measures proposed by the government would do more harm than good.

"It's beyond doubt that the ruling party has enhanced its power over decisions affecting the judiciary," said Vivanco. "In the long run, this move is likely to undermine public confidence in the independence of the courts and weaken the separation of powers in Argentina."

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