A Congressional vote removing all nine judges of Ecuador’s Constitutional Court is the latest in a series of arbitrary actions by competing political factions that have undermined the autonomy of the country’s democratic institutions, Human Rights Watch said today.

“Disagreement with a judicial decision cannot justify the summary removal of judges, especially those responsible for Ecuador’s Constitution,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “Unfortunately this is only the latest example of Ecuadorian officials seeking to resolve political differences by summarily removing their opponents from their posts.”

A series of controversial decisions by Congress and the courts sparked a political crisis in March after the Supreme Electoral Court (Tribunal Supremo Electoral, or TSE) convoked a referendum to approve the election of a constituent assembly to rewrite the Constitution.

On March 6, 52 members of Ecuador’s 100–member unicameral legislature —who opposed holding the referendum—replaced the president of the TSE after the court had announced that the referendum would be held on April 15. On the following day, the TSE retaliated by summarily firing 57 lawmakers. Both decisions were without any credible basis in law.

On April 23, the Constitutional Court ruled that the firing of the legislators was unconstitutional and ordered that most of them be reinstated. On the following day, all nine judges were themselves removed by Congress.

It is the third time in three years that Congress has summarily removed judges from Ecuador’s Constitutional Court.

The parliamentary resolution approved on April 24 argued that the court’s four–year term of office had expired. The court was appointed in February 2006 at a time when it had been vacant for 10 months following the dismissal in April 2005 of the previous incumbents.

The resolution argued that the judges’ term on the bench had been meant to expire in January 2007, when the previous incumbents’ term would have expired if they had remained in office. The motion was carried without discussion and without the presence of the opposition.

Under Article 275 of the Constitution, the Constitutional Court is appointed by Congress for a four-year period. Nowhere in the February 2006 resolution that appointed the judges does it state that their term of office would be for a shorter period. Under Ecuadorian law, judges of the Constitutional Court can only be removed by impeachment, a procedure that provides guarantees of due process.

Each effort by the different factions in Congress and by the Supreme Electoral Court to remove officials from their posts has involved gross interference in the autonomy of another branch of government, Human Rights Watch said.

Ecuador’s democratic institutions have been in crisis for years. Three presidents have been ousted since 1997 before completing their term. In December 2004, during the presidency of Lucio Gutiérrez, Congress fired and replaced most of the judges of the Supreme Court. The Constitutional Court was summarily fired in November 2004, and again in April 2005.