By Nelson Renteria
MEXICO CITY, May 17 (Reuters) - Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele on Saturday night declared a state of emergency to extend coronavirus measures without approval by congress, touching off a torrent of criticism that the move had been unconstitutional.
Salvadoran lawmakers and prosecutors on Sunday vowed to challenge the decree, which they said had overstepped Bukele's powers.
Less than a year into his administration, Bukele, a brash 38-year-old leader, has repeatedly angered rights groups, who say he has shown authoritarian tendencies. In February, Bukele and a group of soldiers armed with automatic weapons briefly occupied congress. Last month, he released startling photos of hundreds of jailed gang members stripped to underwear and pressed together in formation, horrifying advocates.
Congress approved an emergency declaration in March to respond to the coronavirus pandemic, but after an extension in April, the measure was due to expire Sunday. Lawmakers planned to discuss an extension when they reconvened on Monday.
Shortly after Bukele issued his decree, the Salvadoran attorney general said in a statement that it would file a suit alleging that the move was unconstitutional with the country's top court.
But Bukele, who swept to the presidency last year with an outsider candidacy, maintained he was well within his rights.
"All presidents in the democratic history of our country have had the power to declare a state of emergency and have exercised it, without legislative approval," he wrote in a post on Twitter on Sunday. "Will a president be prevented for the first time from exercising that vital power?"
Bukele's administration maintains that a civil protection law authorizes the president to declare a state of emergency if congress cannot hold a session.
They contend that the risk of the coronavirus spreading further in El Salvador justifies the measures. The country has 1,338 confirmed cases of the virus and 27 deaths.
The emergency declaration, which will remain in force over the next 30 days, extends the suspension of classes, restrictions on movement in areas affected by the pandemic and bans on gatherings of large groups. It also authorizes additional government spending during the emergency.
Lawmakers and civil society groups urged an investigation to determine whether Bukele had exceeded his powers.
"What would an autocrat do if Congress did not pass a law on his behalf? I would issue a decree. This has just been done by the young Salvadoran leader (Nayib Bukele) with the state of emergency. Another serious setback,” José Vivanco, executive director for the Americas for U.S.-based Human Rights Watch, wrote on Twitter.
(Reporting by Nelson Renteria; writing by Julia Love, Editing by Nick Zieminski)