Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Now here is something we have not tried yet

QUITO, Ecuador -- Police fired tear gas into Congress before dawn Wednesday to disperse a group of opposition lawmakers who refused to leave after the close of a legislative session that cut short a debate on candidates for attorney general.

Congressman Omar Quintana, president of the legislature, had first cut off the electricity to disrupt a sit-in by about 40 lawmakers, then authorized police to move in around 2 a.m. (0700 GMT) to force 15 remaining legislators to abandon the building.

Ecuadorean TV broadcast images of two policemen firing tear gas into the darkened chamber and lawmakers rushing out through a side door.

Quintana abruptly ended the legislative session late Tuesday just as the opposition appeared on the verge of mustering enough votes to block a government-backed candidate from consideration for the attorney general post.

The confrontation followed a surprise decree by President Lucio Gutierrez's government declaring an extended holiday for Easter, which falls on Sunday. But Gutierrez revoked the decree after mayors in Ecuador's principal cities responded with a call on the population to wage "civil disobedience" to protest the move.

The government decree had said that Wednesday and Thursday would be added to the traditional Good Friday public holiday to boost tourism. Opponents said the measure was designed to shift the nation into holiday mode and pull attention away from political conflict.

Gutierrez and a government-aligned majority bloc in Congress have faced a broad political backlash since December, when pro-government lawmakers replaced 27 of Ecuador's 31 Supreme Court judges in a simple majority vote -- a clear violation of Ecuador's Constitution.

The judges were replaced with magistrates mostly affiliated with the populist, pro-Gutierrez Roldosista and PRIAN parties.

In the face of mounting criticism, Gutierrez has proposed a referendum to ask Ecuadorean voters to approve a constitutional amendment to have a new Supreme Court chosen by an independent panel made up of lawyers, unions and other sectors of civil society.