ASUNCION — Paraguay's president faced hastily called impeachment proceedings on Friday over a squatter eviction that turned deadly, with regional leaders warning against removing him without due process.
In a surprise move, lawmakers voted Thursday to launch the impeachment proceedings against President Fernando Lugo over his "poor performance" during clashes between police and squatters last week that left 17 people dead.
The South American bloc UNASUR quickly dispatched a ministerial delegation and warned against Lugo's removal without due process, with Ecuador warning that Paraguay could face sanctions under the group's "democracy clause."
Lugo, who has vowed to face his accusers, is scheduled to present his defense midday (1600 GMT) Friday, with the senators acting as judges. Senate officials said that a final verdict will be announced at 2030 GMT Friday.
Underscoring the gravity of the crisis, South American nations attending the Rio+20 UN sustainable development summit in Brazil immediately dispatched a ministerial mission to Paraguay.
The foreign ministers of leading South American countries -- including Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela and Colombia -- traveled aboard the same airplane and upon landing in the capital Asuncion headed directly to Lugo's residence.
UNASUR Secretary General Ali Rodriguez of Venezuela, speaking to reporters here, later expressed "grave concern" over the proceedings and said Lugo must be given "due process" and the right to defend himself.
Ecuador's President Rafael Correa went further, warning that Lugo's impeachment without due process could lead the regional bloc to sever ties with Paraguay over a "democracy clause" written into its charter.
"We cannot recognize a new government, and may even have to close the borders," Correa told reporters late Thursday at the UN summit in Brazil.
"Internally, they can do whatever they want, but their international recognition depends on our decision," he added.
Latin American leaders, most of whom experienced the dictatorships of the 1970s and 1980s, are sensitive to any threats to the democratic process.
The impeachment concerns clashes last Friday that erupted when police sought to evict poor farmers from a huge prvately-owned estate in northeast Paraguay that the squatters say was acquired through political influence decades ago.
At least six police and 11 peasants were killed in the ensuing melee.
Lugo, a former Catholic bishop once known as the "bishop of the poor," fought back on Thursday at what he said is a show trial orchestrated by his political enemies.
"I refuse to renounce my functions and vow to abide by the political process with all its consequences," he said. The people's will is "under relentless attack by groups that are always opposed to change."
Lugo accused his opponents of trying to "rob the people of their supreme decision" when they elected him to a five-year term in 2008, ending six decades of rule by the right-wing Colorado Party.
Mario Elizeche, the attorney who defended former president Raul Cubas in a 1999 impeachment, was appalled at how quickly events were moving.
"It is impossible to mount a defense in 24 hours," said Elizeche. "The defense needs time to prepare properly."
In Washington, State Department spokesperson William Ostick said that it is important that Paraguay's democracy and government institutions "serve the interests" of the people.
"It is therefore critically important that these institutions act in a deliberate and transparent manner, and that the principles of due process and the rights of the accused by scrupulously respected," Ostick said.
If Lugo loses power, Vice President Federico Franco would take the helm of one of South America's poorest countries. He leads the Authentic Radical Liberal Party, part of Lugo's ruling coalition.
In an attempt to defuse the crisis, Lugo announced on Wednesday the formation of a special group of "civilian notables" to investigate the killings.
The landlocked South American nation relies heavily on agriculture, and is one of the world's leading soy producers. Land disputes are common in a country where two percent of the people own 80 percent of the land.
The next presidential election is scheduled for April 23, and Lugo's presidential term officially ends on August 15, 2013.
Lugo, who was recently treated for lymphatic cancer, has said he will not seek another term.
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