By Nelson Renteria
SAN SALVADOR (Reuters) -The party of El Salvador's president, Nayib Bukele, voted early on Sunday to remove the Central American country's top prosecutor, part of an intensifying political drama that has drawn criticism from U.S. officials and others.
The vote shortly after midnight to dismiss Attorney General Raul Melara followed a new legislative majority's vote on Saturday night to oust all of the judges who sit in the constitutional chamber of the nation's Supreme Court.
The vote provoked rebukes from opposition lawmakers as well as some international rights organizations.
After a call with Bukele later on Sunday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken expressed "grave concern" over the ouster of the judges and prosecutor in a statement.
U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris tweeted late on Sunday that the United States had "deep concerns about El Salvador’s democracy, in light of the National Assembly’s vote to remove constitutional court judges."
Ruling party lawmakers accused Melara, whose office wields significant power to conduct investigations, of lacking independence, while Blinken cited what he described as the chief prosecutor's effective track record in fighting corruption and impunity.
President Joe Biden's administration has cited corruption in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras as one of the root causes, along with gang violence and poverty, of the increased flow of migrants to the U.S.-Mexico border.
His administration is pressing those governments to do more to fight crime.
The five ousted judges - the most powerful jurists on the 15-member court - were among the few remaining checks on Bukele's power. Bukele and his party accused them of impeding the government's health strategy amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
A savvy and constant user of social media, the popular Bukele stressed his desire to work with all sides, but said in a string of Twitter posts over the weekend that the dismissals were warranted.
"With all due respect, we're cleaning our house and this isn't your responsibility," the 39-year-old president wrote, specifically addressing "the international community."
(Bukele tweet) https://twitter.com/nayibbukele/status/1388705685689540615?s=20
Bukele received support in a Sunday evening tweet from Eduardo Bolsonaro, the son of Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro and a federal congressman, who said that the Salvadoran president's moves were in keeping with the nation's constitution.
"Judges judge case," he wrote. "If they want to dictate policy, they should go out onto the streets and get elected."
Some 200 protesters, nearly all of them masked, gathered around San Salvador's constitution monument on Sunday, chanting anti-Bukele slogans while expressing frustration with the sudden sacking of officials.
"We need to show that a huge part of the population doesn't agree with this," said 25-year-old protester Mauricio Valladares.
Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch denounced the removals as a dangerous power grab.
Just minutes after the vote to dismiss them, the five judges issued a ruling invalidating the legislative action, declaring it an unconstitutional attack on democracy.
But over the next few hours, lawmakers representing the president's New Ideas party voted to replace the judges as well as the attorney general.
Police were then called in to escort the new judges and prosecutor to their offices.
Later on Sunday, one of the five newly appointed judges abruptly quit his post, according to a resignation letter posted on his Twitter account.
The nearly three-year-old New Ideas party took control of Congress after elections in February gave it a supermajority in the unicameral legislature, freeing it from the need to negotiate with the opposition.
The motions to remove the judges and the prosecutor all passed with 64 lawmakers in favor, or nearly 80% of the 84-seat legislature, significantly more than the two-thirds vote required by the constitution.
(Reporting by Nelson Renteria; Additional reporting by David Shepardson in Washington Writing by David Alire Garcia; Editing by Lisa Shumaker, Daniel Wallis and Peter Cooney and Muralikumar Anantharaman)