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Venezuela Reform Decision Reversed

August 20, 1999

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) _ A constitutional assembly on Friday reversed a decision to exclude the Supreme Court and the national Judicial Council from a commission overhauling Venezuela’s court system.

The commission _ formed Thursday as part of a judicial emergency declared by the assembly _ will now include Supreme Court Justice Alirio Abreu Burelli and the Judicial Council’s Nelly Morillo.

The earlier decision to exclude them was seen as a snub to established powers, who had hoped to have a say in the judicial reform.

Venezuela’s court system is in desperate need of an overhaul. It is plagued by chronic corruption and an astounding case backlog. Only about 9,700 of the country’s 23,000 prisoners have actually been convicted.

But opposition leaders have complained that the 131-member assembly, elected last month to write a new constitution, is a mere guise to concentrate power in the hands of President Hugo Chavez, a former coup leader promising to bring a ``social revolution″ to Venezuela.

Members of Chavez’s leftist Patriotic Pole coalition control 92 percent of the assembly’s seats.

Thursday’s declaration of a judicial emergency gives the assembly sweeping new powers to fire judges and overhaul the court system.

Nearly half of Venezuela’s 4,700 judges could be suspended or dismissed because of pending accusations of corruption or other irregularities.

The emergency declaration also set the stage for a confrontation with the Supreme Court, which has ruled that the assembly’s mission is limited to writing a new constitution, not intervening in other branches of government.

The decision to include the Supreme Court and Judicial Council, which oversees the work of judges, seemed an attempt to avoid a clash between public powers.

``What’s important is reaching the goal of cleaning up the justice system, and for that we need the best people, honest people, regardless of where they come from,″ said assembly president Luis Miquilena, Chavez’s former Interior Minister.

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