Honduran lawmakers elect interim prosecutor, opposition cries foul

FILE PHOTO: Protest to demand the Congress to elect new authorities of the Public Prosecutor's Office, in Tegucigalpa

By Gustavo Palencia

TEGUCIGALPA (Reuters) - Ruling party lawmakers in Honduras elected an interim attorney general on Wednesday, but opposition legislators accused the allies of leftist President Xiomara Castro of engineering an unconstitutional power grab.

Lawmakers with Castro's Libre party muscled through the election of the new interim prosecutor, Johel Zelaya, with a committee vote where their members make up a majority, even though they represent a minority in the Congress overall.

The Central American country's constitution stipulates that 86 votes from the 128-member unicameral legislature are needed to elect the attorney general, but it also gives the committee the power to pick an interim chief prosecutor if the post is vacant.

Libre party lawmakers also argued that former Attorney General Oscar Chinchilla played a role in covering up corruption during the government of Castro's predecessor, conservative President Juan Orlando Hernandez, who is awaiting trial in the United States on drug trafficking charges following his extradition last year.

Last December, Castro declared a state of emergency in the country's most violence cities and towns in an anti-gang push often compared to the controversial policy of her Salvadoran counterpart Nayib Bukele. The declaration will remain in place until at least Nov. 17.

On at least four previous occasions, Libre lawmakers came up short with the votes needed to elect Zelaya.

The committee vote to elect him also took place at a time when the Congress is in recess.

Luis Redondo, the president of the Congress, defended Zelaya's election since Chinchilla's term formally ended in August. But his deputy, Daniel Sibrian, moved into the role immediately afterwards.

Opposition leaders criticized the interim election as an underhanded move to circumvent the rules.

"It's illegal," said Tomas Zambrano, leader of the conservative National Party opposition bloc.

"They're taking us to a dictatorship in Honduras, like the ones in Venezuela and Nicaragua," added Zambrano.

(Reporting by Gustavo Renteria; Writing by David Alire Garcia; editing by Grant McCool)