Ousted Honduran Pres. Faces Charges if He Returns

If ousted President Manuel Zelaya succeeds in returning to Honduras, the government that deposed him vows it will be as a prisoner.

Zelaya still faces the same arrest order that prompted soldiers
to detain him in a June 28 coup. That order, sought by the
independent attorney general and endorsed by the Supreme Court,
charged Zelaya with four constitutional crimes, including treason,
that carry combined penalties of up to 43 years in prison.

The embattled interim government - facing international
condemnation for removing Zelaya in a coup - has since scrambled to
find evidence of other crimes to justify his overthrow. The
accusations, which vary from embezzlement to drug-running, so far
have produced no public charges and seem to change from day to day.

"They are floating a lot of accusations, just throwing a lot of
stuff at the wall to see what sticks to justify what happened,"
said Christopher Sabatini, senior director of policy at the
Americas Society/Council of the Americas in New York.

Zelaya stepped inside the Honduran border Friday, but he quickly
retreated to Nicaraguan territory, saying he wanted to avoid
bloodshed. The interim government said it didn't bother to arrest
him because he barely entered the country.

Zelaya returned to the border again Saturday.

The formal charges - treason, usurping the powers of other
branches of government, abuse of authority and trying to undermine
Honduras' system of government - all arise from Zelaya's insistence
on holding a vote asking Hondurans if they want a special assembly
to rewrite the constitution.

Zelaya repeatedly ignored court orders to drop the referendum,
even leading a crowd to seize ballots that the court had ordered
impounded.

The morning of the vote, troops assaulted Zelaya's house,
bundled him aboard an airplane at gunpoint and flew him out of the
country.

The interim government acknowledges that sending Zelaya into
exile wasn't legal, though it says that was necessary for his
security and to prevent unrest.

But it says everything else it did was according to the Honduran
constitution. The presidency was immediately handed to the man next
in line: Roberto Micheletti, the head of Congress. Honduras'
Supreme Court and Congress - constitutionally equal to the
presidency - both supported Zelaya's ouster.

Attorney General Luis Alberto Rubi argues that only Congress or
the electoral tribunal has constitutional authority to organize a
referendum. The law also says that such votes have to be held 180
days away from a general election, and a presidential election was
imminent.

Rubi argues that the constitution itself forbids a full rewrite,
so the question of an assembly to redraw the document is itself
illegal.

The arguments for removing Zelaya from office seem less clear.

The constitution lets Congress "censure" a president, but has
no explicit process for removing him.

Congressional leaders initially justified the ouster by
producing a curious letter of resignation in which Zelaya
purportedly complained that disputes "have eroded my political
base" and stated that health problems were affecting his ability
to govern.

Zelaya flatly denied writing the letter, which was dated three
days before his ouster. There has been little mention of the letter
by the interim government since.

Coup supporters later argued that Zelaya had "automatically"
removed himself from the presidency. The constitution says that any
president who "directly or indirectly" proposes allowing
presidential re-election is immediately removed from office.

They argued that Zelaya's backing of a constitutional assembly
was a backdoor way of erasing the ban on re-election. Zelaya denies
plotting to remove term limits or the ban on re-election.

Meanwhile, prosecutors have been hunting for new charges.

Deputy Attorney General Roy Urtecho said shortly after the coup
that there was enough evidence to prosecute Zelaya for 18 crimes,
including failure to enact as many as 80 laws passed by Congress.
He later said he didn't recall giving that number.

Micheletti then put the number of crimes that could lead to
charges at 15.

Investigators poring through the accounts and offices of Zelaya
and his collaborators have leaked reports to the press of finding
suspicious caches of cash. And they are examining government
expenditures over the past year, for which Zelaya submitted no
budget.

Enrique Ortez, who initially served as foreign minister for the
interim government, suggested to CNN en Espanol that Zelaya could
face charges of protecting drug traffickers.

"Every night, three or four Venezuelan-registered planes land
without the permission of appropriate authorities and bring
thousands of pounds ... and packages of money that are the fruit of
drug trafficking," he said.

Ortez was later dismissed for referring to President Barack
Obama as "a little black man."


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