QUITO, Ecuador – Facing growing street protests demanding his ouster, President Lucio Gutierrez (search) declared a state of emergency Friday night in the capital and dissolved the Supreme Court in an effort to resolve an escalating political crisis.
The state of emergency placed the military in charge of maintaining public order.
Gutierrez, with the military high command standing behind him, announced in a televised address to the nation that under the authority provided by the Constitution, he was dismissing "the judges of the current Supreme Court designated by Congress" in December.
"The measure ... was taken because Congress until now has not resolved the matter of the current Supreme Court, which is generating national commotion and especially in the city of Quito ... which rejects the operation of the Supreme Court," he said.
A state of emergency suspends individual rights, including the right to free expression and public assembly, and allows police to enter private homes without search warrants. The government noted in a news release that previous governments have made use of states of emergencies frequently.
Quito residents ignored the restriction on public assembly and within two hours of the announcement thousands had poured into the streets.
Quito Mayor Paco Moncayo (search), a retired army general and a leader of the opposition Democratic Left party, criticized Gutierrez' actions and the military high command for supporting the president.
"The president can't dissolve the court. We are living in a dictatorship and this decree unmasks the dictatorship," he said. "We are calling for civil disobedience."
The court crisis was set in motion in November when the former justices sided with opposition politicians in a failed effort to impeach Gutierrez on corruption charges. Gutierrez then assembled a bloc of 52 lawmakers in the 100-seat unicameral Congress, which voted in December to remove the judges. Law experts said the vote was unconstitutional.
Gutierrez's opponents accused him of acting like dictator and demanded that the new court be dismissed.
In a bid to ease the political backlash, in late March Gutierrez proposed a judicial reform that would replace the new court and establish new methods for selecting judges. The legislature has not acted on the proposal.
There was little turnout earlier this week when Gutierrez's political opponents called a giant demonstration against his purge of the court. But street protests began Wednesday night and increased in numbers until at least 10,000 people marched Friday night in several sections of Quito, banging pots and sticks and shouting "Get out, Lucio!"
The political tensions reached a boiling point after the return earlier this month of former President Abdala Bucaram to Ecuador following a Supreme Court ruling that cleared him of corruption charges.
Gutierrez's opponents charge he cut a deal with Bucaram to stack the Supreme Court in his favor as payback for key votes Bucaram's political party provided last year blocking an impeachment drive against Gutierrez in Congress.
Gutierrez was elected president in November 2002 after campaigning as a populist, anti-corruption reformer. But his left-leaning constituency soon fell apart after he instituted austerity measures, including cutting subsidies on food and cooking fuel, to satisfy lenders like the International Monetary Fund.
Gutierrez, a former army colonel, served as Bucaram's military attache and was jailed for leading a rebellion in 2000 that toppled former President Jamil Mahuad (search) from power.