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Argentina's Kirchner wins battle on legal reform

By Staff
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BUENOS AIRES, Argentina, Feb 23 (Reuters) Argentina's President Nestor Kirchner won congressional approval early today for a judicial reform hotly contested by opposition and rights groups who say it increases government control over the courts.

The reform to the Magistrate Council, which is responsible for naming and dismissing judges, reduces the members of the body to 13 from 20 and hands politicians a majority on the council over lawyers, judges and academics.

Despite rare unity among the opposition parties to block the initiative, the Chamber of Deputies approved the bill 148-89 after nine hours of debate.

The opposition, weakened in October's legislative vote, accuses the Peronist leader of seeking to exert political influence on judges with the reform, which gives his ruling party more say in the nomination and monitoring of judges as well as in how the judiciary's budget is managed.

But Kirchner said the reforms aim at streamlining the council, often criticized for its sluggish decision-making, and that the greater representation of elected lawmakers on the panel would make it more transparent.

''There are a lot of interests at play here to make sure things don't change,'' Kirchner said.

''In the task of making the judiciary independent and responsive to the people, we are undertaking a reform that is obviously opposed by those old, outdated institutions,'' he said, referring to the political parties and legal professional groups who have fought the bill.

Sen. Cristina Kirchner, the first lady, has been the main proponent of the bill.

Since taking power in May 2003 with just 22 percent of the vote, Kirchner has consolidated his leadership of the Peronist Party and has gained widespread popularity for his fiery attacks on foreign business and the International Monetary Fund.

But he has come under increasing criticism lately for concentrating power in his own hands to the detriment of political institutions.

''The reform is just one more step in a growing trend in which Kirchner is trying to accumulate more power and shape institutions to favor him and allow him to implement policies,'' said Daniel Kerner, political risk analyst with Eurasia Group in New York.

''This clearly shows the opposition is very weak and that it will weaken even further,'' he added.

Washington-based Human Rights Watch called on Kirchner to amend the reform bill or veto it in a letter earlier this month.

REUTERS SHR RAI1905

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