Honduras: Will the Rule of Law Prevail?
Watching the events unfold in Central America over the past week has been an infuriating and dismaying exercise. Too many people, either sadly uninformed or maliciously misinforming, have referred to the ouster of Mel Zelaya by the unified government of Honduras as a “military coup” and an illegal transfer of power. Not only are such castigations dead wrong, they are made without any justification and completely against the actual Honduran Constitution.
To understand just how far off base these accusations of illegality are, ask yourself what law is alleged to have been broken. Has anyone cited an actual provision of the Constitution or a statute that’s been violated? Of course not, because there is none. In fact, if any of those who have been so quick to condemn the Honduran government had actually done just a smidgeon of research, they would have found the ouster of Zelaya to be self-perpetuated and entirely within the rule of law.
To wit, here is Title II, Chapter 4, Article 239 of the Honduran Constitution, first in Spanish:
ARTICULO 239.- El ciudadano que haya desempeñado la titularidad del Poder Ejecutivo no podrá ser Presidente o Vicepresidente de la República.
El que quebrante esta disposición o proponga su reforma, así como aquellos que lo apoyen directa o indirectamente, cesarán de inmediato en el desempeño de sus respectivos cargos y quedarán inhabilitados por diez (10) años para el ejercicio de toda función pública.
And in English#:
Article 239 — No citizen that has already served as head of the Executive Branch can be President or Vice-President.
Whoever violates this law or proposes its reform, as well as those that support such violation directly or indirectly, will immediately cease in their functions and will be unable to hold any public office for a period of 10 years.
The plain text of Article 239 quite clearly states that Zelaya, through his own actions, ended his presidency. By seeking to hold a referendum on whether Hondurans should consider changing the term-limits portion of the Constitution, Zelaya’s official duties were ended “immediately” and he was further barred from participating in public office for a period of ten years. Period, the end.
Some may try to argue that Zelaya did not receive any due process in his ouster, but that argument must fail. Even under U.S. jurisprudence, due process is simply all the process that is due. In this case, once Zelaya was determined to have violated the term-limits provision of Article 239 by proposing its reform, which Zelaya has basically admitted and which the Honduran Supreme Court derivatively found, then he received his due process. Despite the decisions against him, Zelaya decided to go ahead with his illegal referendum, gathered a mob together, and invaded the military compound where the (Venezuelan-created) ballot boxes were being kept. He fully intended to hold the referendum on Sunday June 28th had he not been stopped.
These, among other actions, were what led the Congress to pursue impeachment, the Attorney General to issue an arrest warrant on Saturday June 25, 2009, and the Supreme Court to issue its own arrest warrant on Sunday resulting in Zelaya’s removal from the country:
Honduras’s military acted under judicial orders in deposing President Manuel Zelaya, Supreme Court Justice Rosalinda Cruz said, rejecting the view of President Barack Obama and other leaders that he was toppled in a coup.
“The only thing the armed forces did was carry out an arrest order,” Cruz, 55, said in a telephone interview from the capital, Tegucigalpa. “There’s no doubt he was preparing his own coup by conspiring to shut down the congress and courts.”
Cruz said the court issued a sealed arrest order for Zelaya on June 26, charging him with treason and abuse of power, among other offenses. Zelaya had repeatedly breached the constitution by pushing ahead with a vote about rewriting the nation’s charter that the court ruled illegal, and which opponents contend would have paved the way for a prohibited second term.
The arrest order she cited, approved unanimously by the court’s 15 justices, was released this afternoon along with documents pertaining to a secret investigation that went on for weeks under the high court’s supervision.
Cruz said the military decided to shuttle Zelaya out of the country for his safety and that of other Hondurans because riots would’ve erupted had he been held for trial.
“If he had been allowed to stay in the country, there would’ve been blood on the streets,” she said.
To recap, Zelaya violated Art. 239 by proposing and then attempting to hold a referendum to change his term limits, which referendum was declared illegal by the Supreme Court and the Congress, and then he tried to go ahead with it anyway. In the meantime, aside from the secret, court-approved investigation going on for some time behind the scenes, the Attorney General and the Congress sought Zelaya’s impeachment, and the Supreme Court and the Attorney General each issued arrest warrants when Zelaya pressed ahead with his illegal referendum. The military responded to the court-ordered arrest and took Zelaya into custody on June 28th.
But what about the deportation to Costa Rica? Surely that was an illegal action? Heck, even a top Honduran military official is saying so:
The military officers who rushed deposed Honduran President Manuel Zelaya out of the country Sunday committed a crime but will be exonerated for saving the country from mob violence, the army’s top lawyer said.
In an interview with The Miami Herald and El Salvador’s elfaro.net, army attorney Col. Herberth Bayardo Inestroza acknowledged that top military brass made the call to forcibly remove Zelaya — and they circumvented laws when they did it.
It was the first time any participant in Sunday’s overthrow admitted committing an offense and the first time a Honduran authority revealed who made the decision that has been denounced worldwide.
”We know there was a crime there,” said Inestroza, the top legal advisor for the Honduran armed forces. “In the moment that we took him out of the country, in the way that he was taken out, there is a crime. Because of the circumstances of the moment this crime occurred, there is going to be a justification and cause for acquittal that will protect us.”
Of course, it wasn’t the first time anyone took credit for the decision (the Supreme Court has been saying for days that it order Zelaya’s capture), and Inestroza also declares that whatever “crime” may have been committed against Zelaya would be absolved anyway:
“What was more beneficial, remove this gentleman from Honduras or present him to prosecutors and have a mob assault and burn and destroy and for us to have to shoot?” he said. “If we had left him here, right now we would be burying a pile of people.”
This week, Deputy Attorney General Roy David Urtecho told reporters that he launched an investigation into why Zelaya was removed by force instead of taken to court. Article 24 of Honduras’ penal code will exonerate the joint chiefs of staff who made the decision, because it allows for making tough decisions based on the good of the state, Inestroza said.
Another provision to keep in mind is Title II, Chapter 3, Article 42:
Article 42: The legal rights of any citizen is lost:
5) If the citizen incites, promotes, or supports the continuance or the re-election of the President of the Republic;
Accordingly, not only has Zelaya lost his ability to continue in office through his own actions, he has also lost his rights as a citizen, among those which would presumably be the right to remain in the country. In the end, that all spells a one-way ticket to anywhere but Honduras for the would-be Chavista dictator. Moreover, Zelaya should be very thankful that he wasn’t ousted in the old-fashioned way which was much more permanent and painful.
The only question remaining is, why would our President, as leader of a country founded on the rule of law over the rule of men, opt to side with flouter of constitutional democracy instead of the leaders who took great pains to ensure that the country’s constitution was adhered to? Unfortunately, I’m afraid that there are no good answers to that question, and that our President is helping to precipitate a major crisis in Central America. Was this the change we were hoping for?
[General HT to Fausta for many of the above links]
# I’ve checked the translation against some Spanish to English translators and it appears to be essentially correct to me. Any suggested changes are welcome.