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Originally published Wednesday, April 24, 2013 at 11:48 AM

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Argentine Congress aims to 'democratize' courts

Legislators shouted at each other all day and into the night Wednesday while a nervous crowd held vigil outside as congress bitterly debated major changes to Argentina's system.

Associated Press

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BUENOS AIRES, Argentina —

Legislators shouted at each other all day and into the night Wednesday while a nervous crowd held vigil outside as congress bitterly debated major changes to Argentina's system.

President Cristina Fernandez said the measures her allies were pushing through would finally make the nation's courts more democratic and responsive to the will of the people. Her opponents called it a thinly disguised effort by the president to become all powerful by effectively ending the separation of powers.

While lawmakers yelled in the Senate and House of Deputies, a crowd of politicians, civic organizations, unions and other groups gathered outside Congress. Many praised the proposals as much needed reforms; others predicted the end of the country's democracy. Judicial workers went on strike nationwide.

Criticism rained in from overseas as press freedom and human rights groups warned that free speech and the right to challenge government policies would be weakened if her majorities in both houses insisted on approving the changes.

"This reform would give Argentina's ruling party an automatic majority on the council that oversees the judiciary, which seriously compromises judicial independence," said Jose Miguel Vivanco, the Americas director at Human Rights Watch in Washington.

Legislative leaders said voting wouldn't begin until early Thursday morning.

The changes would, among other things:

- End indefinite injunctions against government actions. An injunction against an anti-monopoly law protected the opposition Grupo Clarin media group for more than three years.

- Expand and popularly elect most of the magistrate's council, and make it so judges with lifetime appointments can be disciplined with a majority vote, rather than two-thirds.

- Create appellate courts to handle civil, administrative, labor and social security cases. Currently, all but criminal cases are appealed directly to Argentina's Supreme Court.

- Require executive, legislative and judicial authorities to publish their tax declarations online. Fernandez says this will increase transparency and show whose interests are protected by judges.

- Require courts to post their decisions online.

- Fill judicial jobs through open competitions, rather than nepotism.

Fernandez said the changes would speed justice, and make it more transparent and democratic.

"In our country's history, the economic powers have always tried to block democracy," Justice Minister Julio Alak said on the eve of the debate. "There are sectors in the justice system that respond more to the economically powerful than the law."

But opponents feared the president will pack the magistrates' council and the new appellate courts with her allies, who in turn will protect her government from corruption investigations and block any challengers to her power.

Three pieces of the legislation had already been approved by senators and three others by deputies, and each set of three was being debated Wednesday in the opposite chamber. Most could become law after this round of voting, which was expected to stretch into Thursday afternoon.

The package of laws would seriously weaken Argentina's democracy and "confirms once again the character of absolute power that Cristina Fernandez has," said Pablo Micheli, who runs the opposition wing of the CTA union coalition.

Other protesters outside the congress carried signs defending judicial independence and saying "Enough impunity."

Even close government allies challenged the limits on court injunctions as unconstitutional. The proposed law would limit injunctions to six months in cases against the government, and remove injunctions entirely if the government appealed. In response, the wording was changed to enable injunctions on behalf of "socially vulnerable sectors" with or without government approval. Opponents said the change was meaningless and remained unconstitutional.

Opposition lawmaker Elisa Carrio alleged that some members of the Supreme Court were conspiring with the government to shape the laws, including a change to shift power over the judiciary's budget to the justices, rather than the magistrates' council. That change now would require another vote in the Senate.

Some ruling party members broke from their allies during the debate. Front for Victory Deputy Jorge Yoma said the laws "put at risk the freedom of conscience of a judge when he rules."

The limits on injunctions and the changes to the magistrates' council generated the most debate. The council would change from 13 appointed members to 19, and 12 of those would be popularly elected, filling spots according to the same majorities and minorities obtained in congress.

"They want each party that wins the presidential elections to carry its majority into the council. This will create an automatic majority of at least 10 or more of the members," Vivanco warned.

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Associated Press writer Almudena Calatrava contributed to this report.

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