El Salvador's appointment of new judges raises fears of power grab

El Salvador President Nayib Bukele speaks during a news conference in San Salvador
El Salvador President Nayib Bukele speaks during a news conference in San Salvador, El Salvador, June 6, 2021. REUTERS/Jose Cabezas/File Photo

SAN SALVADOR, June 30 (Reuters) - Lawmakers in El Salvador on Wednesday voted to keep the head of the Supreme Court in place for three more years and appointed five new justices, triggering concerns that President Nayib Bukele is shoring up a bid to consolidate power.

Bukele's New Ideas (NI) party and its allies hold a super-majority in Congress, where lawmakers have now appointed 10 court judges in less than two months.

Supreme Court President Oscar Lopez was first appointed last month, just as Bukele's legislative allies abruptly ousted five judges as well as the attorney general.

The move that was harshly criticized by the United States and international rights groups as a dangerous power grab.

Victoria Nuland, U.S. undersecretary for political affairs, met on Wednesday with Bukele as part of her tour to the region.

Nuland said she discussed the need to strengthen democratic institutions, the separation of powers and the fight against corruption, and stressed the importance of establishing an independent oversight body against corruption.

"(We talked about) an independent judicial system, a general attorney and judges who are chosen through a transparent process based on merit," Nuland said at a press conference.

The new judges to the 15-seat court will be able to serve for nine years.

Bukele said lawmakers voted in line with the constitution and selected the judges from candidate lists submitted by bar associations.

"Their decisions are totally legitimate and represent the power of the people," Bukele said on Twitter.

However, during the congressional session that began on Tuesday and stretched until dawn, lawmaker Dina Argueta from the leftist Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) warned that the new judges were Bukele loyalists whose appointments marked a "concentration of power."

Jose Miguel Vivanco, the head of Human Rights Watch in the Americas, also expressed concerns the new judges would not be impartial.

Reporting by Nelson Renteria; Writing by Daina Beth Solomon; Editing by Paul Simao & Shri Navaratnam

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.