Human Rights Ombudsman Says Supreme Court Ruling On Public Employees’ Political Participation Violates Freedom of Expression

by CISPES

FMLN legislators criticized the Supreme Court on Tuesday for attempting to “silence” Human Rights Ombudsman, David Morales for speaking out against the court’s action during a case regarding the participation of public officials in electoral campaigns.

The case in question concerns the constitutionality of a memo from President Mauricio Funes that granted public functionaries freedom to participate in any presidential candidate’s campaign as long as activities took place outside of work hours and no public funds or resources were used for partisan purposes. On January 24, however, Constitutional Chamber judges released a preliminary ruling contradicting the memo that prohibited public functionaries and public employees – the latter category including every government employee from school teachers to janitorial staff at government buildings – from participating in partisan activities, including campaigning.

This preliminary ruling was released just one day before First Lady Vanda Pignato – an extremely popular public figure – was scheduled to participate in a massive FMLN campaign event. Considering public functionaries from all parties had previously been engaged in campaign activities for several months without any reaction from the Court, the decision appeared to be an attempt to keep Pignato from appearing in the FMLN event.

The Office of the Human Right’s Ombudsman, which is charged with advocating for the human rights of all Salvadorans and has the authority to issue non-binding pronouncements, quickly issued its own ruling declaring that the Chamber’s preliminary measure violated the political rights and freedom of expression of public functionaries and public employees as Salvadoran citizens.

In the Constitutional Chamber’s recent final ruling on the case, however, the judges upheld their preliminary decision. Furthermore, they criticized Morales’ pronouncement, describing his ruling as a “violation” of the Chamber’s independence. The Court also cautioned Morales against issuing further rulings related to its cases, raising concerns that the Supreme Court is seeking to undermine the work of the Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman. The Office was founded in 1992 as an independent institution to prevent State-sponsored human rights violations—a  frequent ocurrence during El Salvador’s 12-year Civil War.  According to FMLN legislator Roberto Lorenzana, “It seems inappropriate to us that [this decision] involves silencing the Human Rights Ombudsman… [They] want to limit his ability to give opinions on behalf of a State institution in defense of human rights.”

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