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Paraguay suspends due process to combat kidnappers

ASUNCION, Paraguay (AP) — Lawmakers gave Paraguay's president and army emergency powers resembling martial law Saturday to pursue a guerrilla group known for its kidnappings in the north of the country.

Congress proclaimed constitutional order at risk as it declared a 30-day emergency for a five-state region where the Paraguayan People's Army has sown fear with kidnappings for ransom in the name of political change to help the rural poor.

Leftist President Fernando Lugo, who had asked for a 60-day suspension of due process, will be able to order arrests and the transfer of suspects without court approval.

Lugo signed the legislation into law Saturday night and it took effect immediately. A Cabinet minister said a commander would be quickly named to lead the joint military-police offensive.

"We appreciate the speed of the parlimaent in approving this proposal that doesn't alter the country's democratic form," Interior Minister Rafael Filizzola said at a news conference.

Filizzola also said the government planned to meet with representatives of groups that defend human rights to offer assurances the offensive will observe legal norms.

Critics on the right have accused Lugo of being too soft on the rebel group, which was blamed by authorities in the killing this month of a police officer and three workers while attacking a farm to steal animals.

Since 2008, the Paraguayan People's Army collected ransoms of $700,000 in the kidnappings of two prominent ranchers and is accused of killing police and civilians as it burned down police and military posts.

"Ranch owners and farm hands, and the people who live in these states, do not deserve to live in fear," opposition Sen. Miguel Carrizosa said in announcing unanimous Senate approval. "Even in the Paraguayan capital of Asuncion many people fear that the EPP has extended its criminal activities to urban areas."

The new law also places new limits on civil liberties like the right to assemble by prohibiting public protests.

Lugo, a former Roman Catholic bishop, renounced his church vows to run for office as a defender of Paraguay's downtrodden, but now finds himself increasingly occupied with law-and-order matters.

His 2008 election broke 61 years of unbroken right-wing rule by the Colorado Party that included decades of brutal dictatorship.