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(Washington, DC) - The firing of judges who opposed the 2009 coup is a serious blow to judicial independence in Honduras, Human Rights Watch said today.

On May 12, 2010, the Honduran Supreme Court ratified its May 5 vote to dismiss four lower-court judges who are members of Judges for Democracy, a group that has challenged the legality of the coup that ousted President Manuel Zelaya last year.

"The Honduran judiciary should be working to re-establish the rule of law and remedy the damage done by last year's coup," said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. "By firing these judges, the Supreme Court is doing precisely the opposite."

Judge Ramón Barrios was removed for publicly criticizing a June 2009 Supreme Court ruling that validated the coup. Barrios issued his critique at an academic conference at the University of San Pedro Sula, where he teaches law. According to the judiciary's personnel office, the reason for dismissing Barrios was that his criticism "undermined the dignity" of the judiciary.

Judge Guillermo López Lone, the president of Judges for Democracy, and Judge Luis Chévez de la Rocha were removed for participating in public demonstrations calling for Zelaya to be reinstated. The political nature of this ruling is evidenced by the fact that in June 2009, the judiciary's personnel director issued an official invitation to all judicial branch employees, including judges, to attend a public demonstration in favor of the de facto government.

A fourth judge, Thirza Flores Lanza, was removed for filing two legal motions on behalf of Zelaya. The judiciary's personnel office claimed that her actions violated the judiciary's prohibition on judges engaging in litigation. López Lone told Human Rights Watch that Flores Lanza had sought to defend herself against the charges by submitting evidence to the personnel office that other judges have filed similar legal motions in the past without being subject to disciplinary sanction.

Under Honduran law, the disciplinary proceeding leading to the judges' removal is not transparent and does not afford basic due process guarantees. While the judges had an opportunity to present evidence in their defense to the judiciary's personnel director, they were not allowed to participate in or even witness the proceedings before the Supreme Court.

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