- The Washington Times - Friday, May 22, 2009

SANTA CRUZ, Bolivia | The chief justice of Bolivia’s Supreme Court is facing an impeachment trial in the Senate, which critics claim marks the beginning of an effort by President Evo Morales to impose his will on the nation’s judiciary.

Mr. Morales supporters, who hold a majority in the lower chamber of Bolivia’s Congress, voted last week to impeach Chief Justice Eddy Fernandez, accusing him of “retarding justice” by failing to hear thousands of cases pending before the court.

“The Chamber of Deputies refers the case to the Senate this week for its consideration,” said Senate President Oscar Ortiz of the conservative Podemos Party. Morales opponents hold a one-seat majority in the upper chamber.

Mr. Morales has vowed to remake Bolivia as a socialist state modeled on Cuba, and he makes no secret of his desire to put sympathetic judges in the courts.

“For the people to have power means having control of executive power, legislative power and judicial power … we need justice for the workers,” Mr. Morales told a rally of pro-government unions Tuesday.

The main case that Justice Fernandez had refused to hear concerns former President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, who lives in exile in the United States.

He is blamed for the deaths of 67 Indians in a 2003 attempt to put down demonstrations calling for his ouster. The ultimately successful campaign was led by Mr. Morales and his Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) political party.

In a telephone interview. Mr. Sanchez called the trial a “sham” and said that Mr. Morales should be on trial for “backing the violent protests which toppled a legally elected administration.”

Mr. Morales went on to win the presidential election in 2005 to become the nation’s first ethnic Indian leader.

With Justice Fernandez absent, the Supreme Court opened hearings Monday on the case against Mr. Sanchez amid a tense standoff between dueling groups of protesters in Sucre, where the court is based.

Pro-government demonstrators sought revenge for their fallen colleagues while anti-government protesters charged that the move against Justice Fernandez reflects Mr. Morales efforts to create a Cuban-style dictatorship.

Critics say that the trial is largely symbolic because most of the 16 former officials being charged, including the former president, are outside the country.

Justice Fernandez’s impeachment prompted three members of Mr. Sanchez’s Cabinet to flee to neighboring Peru last week, where they were granted political asylum.

Mr. Morales responded by calling Peru’s pro-U.S. President Alan Garcia a “delinquent.”

Opposition lawmakers, who staged a walkout from the lower chamber in an attempt to deny government supporters a voting quorum during the impeachment, say Justice Fernandezs impeachment is aimed at neutralizing Bolivias judiciary.

Justice Fernandez has vowed to fight the impeachment at the Senate trial.

He has also warned that his removal would pave the way for the displacement of other judges.

“They are making a list, so that the Congress, through MAS lawmakers, can achieve their purpose of decapitating the judicial powers,” Justice Fernandez told a rally of supporters.

The nation’s ethnic divide has locked Mr. Morales into an often violent conflict with business and landowning interests in the wealthy Eastern lowland provinces, where the predominant white and mixed-race population resents government plans to empower Andean Indians.

Despite stiff resistance from the eastern provinces of Santa Cruz, Tarija, Beni and Pando, where demands for regional autonomy sometimes border on outright separatism, Mr. Morales won a national referendum for a socialist constitution in February with two-thirds of the popular vote.

Beni Governor Ernesto Suarez, a prominent opponent of Mr. Morales, fears the government intends to silence the opposition.

“This government does not want to permit independent powers. They need to destroy them. Its what they have to do to get those they want to get” Mr. Suarez said.

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