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Debate Deepens On Legality, Necessity Of Ousting Honduran President

Supporters greet ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya as he arrives at the Brazilian Embassy in Tegucigalpa on September 21.
Honduran security forces clashed with hundreds of supporters of ousted President Manuel Zelaya outside the Brazilian Embassy in Honduras's capital, Tegucigalpa, on September 22.

Zelaya took refuge there after sneaking back into the country on September 21 in a bid to return to power. As the political crisis continues to unfold, international pressure is mounting for the country to follow the rule of law by reinstating Zelaya.

But there is a building argument that Zelaya's ouster not only was carried out legally under the Honduran Constitution but also was necessary to preserve the rule of law.

Honduran troops toppled Zelaya at gunpoint on June 28 after the Supreme Court ordered his arrest on charges of violating the constitution. He was then sent into exile. The United States, European Union, United Nations, and every Latin American regional grouping condemned the ouster as a coup d'etat.

The National Congress selected its leader and the next person in the line of succession, Roberto Micheletti, to carry out the rest of Zelaya's term. Micheletti is from Zelaya's Liberal Party of Honduras, but there had been conflict between the two before the political crisis unfolded.

Micheletti maintains he is the legitimate president and calls Zelaya's removal a "constitutional substitution."

Micheletti also insists that presidential elections must go ahead as scheduled on November 29 -- despite the fact that no country has recognized his government and the international community says it will not recognize elections held under his rule.

'I Am Ready'

On September 22, Micheletti issued a statement promising to meet with Zelaya on condition that the ousted president recognize the November elections.

"Indeed, I am ready to discuss how to resolve the political crisis under the framework provided to us by the Honduran constitution," the statement says. "And I am ready to do so with Mr. Zelaya as long as he explicitly recognizes the constitutionally mandated presidential elections scheduled for November 29, where Honduras will elect its next president."

They have not followed the system as it is set in the constitution, and in my opinion the current government is fraudulent.

In Washington, there has been some criticism of U.S. President Barack Obama's administration for supporting Zelaya. Republican Congressman Connie Mack has argued that it is wrong to describe Zelaya's ouster as a military coup.

"The administration has cut funding to the people of Honduras because some have claimed that a military coup has occurred in Honduras," Mack said during one recent congressional debate.

"Instead of being responsible on the matter, the administration has got itself involved with the likes of [Venezuelan President Hugo] Chavez, [Bolivian President Evo] Morales, and [Nicaraguan President Daniel] Oretega, and too quickly reacted in a knee-jerk fashion," Mack continued. "To cut the aid -- be it humanitarian, military, or what have you -- is the wrong thing to do."

Washington lawyer Miguel Estrada is a native of Honduras who served as a member of the official U.S. delegation to Zelaya's 2006 inauguration. He tells RFE/RL that he believes Zelaya's ouster was carried out legally and was not a military coup.

"The only reason [Micheletti] is in power is not because the military gave him power, but because the congress of the country gave him power," Estrada says. "There has been no change in the party that controls the government, merely a determination by the Supreme Court of the country and the Congress that President Zelaya violated the country's constitution to such an extent that he had to be arrested for crimes and that he had to be removed from office."

Zelaya's critics -- including the Supreme Court and the National Congress of Honduras -- say he violated the constitution by trying to change it so he could serve a second term.

Unusual Provision

Estrada explains that the Honduran Constitution has a relatively unusual provision that specifies that a rule limiting presidents to a single four-year term can never be changed. He says it also provides that any president "ceases immediately to be president" if they so much as propose a constitutional amendment to change the single four-year term limit.

"That is one of the [issues] upon which the removal was based," Estrada says. "[Zelaya] had been engaged in a campaign to have a referendum that asked for the writing of an entirely new constitution. The Supreme Court and Congress concluded that the only possible goal was to allow him to seek reelection."

Indeed, Zelaya had argued that presidential reelection should be possible and that the country's 1982 constitution must be amended to reflect "substantial and significant changes" in Honduran society in recent years.

But Zelaya says his referendum would merely have asked whether another referendum should be held on possible constitutional changes -- a way, he says, of consulting the people of Honduras in a nonbinding opinion poll.

Zelaya also says he did not propose any specific constitutional changes. He says any changes to the constitution that might have eventually resulted would have taken place only after he left office.

Historian Fidel Gomez Ochoa at Spain's University of Cantabria crticizes Micheletti's government for ousting Zelaya without even putting him on trial.

"If [Zelaya] had committed any illegal act, he should have been tried, since the judicial system establishes that he should be tried," Ochoa tells RFE/RL. "They have not followed the system as it is set in the constitution, and in my opinion the current government is fraudulent."

Other experts on Latin America note that Honduras's Constitution also forbids the forcible exile of any citizen. They say that bolsters the argument that Zelaya's expulsion was unconstitutional.

With contributions from RFE/RL correspondent Heather Maher in Washington and Michael Hirshman in Prague