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Wednesday, August 25, 1999 Published at 03:58 GMT 04:58 UK

World: Americas

Top Venezuelan judge resigns

Many fear the constitutional assembly is too powerful

The president of Venezuela's Supreme Court resigned on Tuesday, saying the court had "committed suicide" by caving in to a constitutional assembly controlled by supporters of President Hugo Chavez.

[ image: Cecilia Sosa announces her resignation]
Cecilia Sosa announces her resignation
Cecilia Sosa Gomez said she was giving up her post to protest against a Supreme Court decision on Monday saying the assembly acted lawfully when it declared a judicial emergency last week and gave itself the power to fire judges and carry out other reforms.

"The court simply committed suicide to avoid being assassinated. But the result is the same. It is dead," Ms Sosa said.

Supreme power

President Chavez, a former paratrooper who led a failed 1992 coup attempt, has declared the assembly the supreme power in Venezuela, and some Venezuelans fear it will be used to concentrate power in his hands.

BBC Latin American analyst Maurice Walsh: Latest stage in president's transformation project
His leftist Patriotic Pole coalition won 121 of the assembly's 131 seats in elections last month.

The assembly's intended role is to rewrite the country's constitution, but President Chavez has encouraged it to take on wider powers.

"The last control on constitutionality and legality that existed in Venezuela has disappeared. Only the national constitutional assembly remains," Ms Sosa said.

Legislative emergency next?

Congress has gone into recess until October to avoid a confrontation with the assembly, which may declare a legislative emergency this week to match last week's judicial emergency.

The move could turn over most of Congress's functions to the assembly.

Chavez supporters say the assembly's hardline actions are aimed at forcing reforms which most Venezuelans agree are necessary but have been blocked for years by corrupt politicians and judicial authorities.

The assembly last Friday named a nine-member reform panel that includes a Supreme Court justice, a top prisons expert, a former planning minister and a human rights lawyer.

Under the judicial emergency now in force, the assembly could suspend or dismiss nearly half of Venezuela's judges because of pending accusations of corruption or other irregularities.

Venezuela's court system is plagued by chronic corruption and a huge case backlog.

Only about 9,700 of the country's 23,000 prisoners have actually been convicted.

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