ASUNCION - Impeachment proceedings began Friday against Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo over his handling of a land dispute that left at least 17 people dead. Lugo sacked his interior minister and Paraguay's police chief to try to staunch the political bloodletting in the wake of last week's incident, which highlighted the president's failure to redistribute land to the poor. But the right-wing Colorado Party, whose six-decade grip on power he ended in 2008, has joined forces with the Authentic Radical Liberal Party, part of Lugo's ruling coalition, in a determined bid to oust him from office. Lugo has appealed the impeachment proceedings before the Supreme Court.
, saying they were unconstitutional and that under the law he had the right to delay the process for 18 days to give him time to prepare his defense. But the process began shortly after 1630 GMT with Lugo's five lawyers - appearing in the Senate on his behalf - having just two hours to present their defense.
Senate officials said a final verdict would be announced at 2030 GMT, with the senators acting as judges in the upper chamber, where only five out of 45 lawmakers now support the former Roman Catholic bishop.
The lower house voted 76-1 on Thursday to impeach Lugo, who rose to power as the "bishop of the poor" but has failed to change the statistic that two percent of Paraguayans own three-quarters of the land.
Senate officials said a final verdict would be announced at 2030 GMT, with the senators acting as judges in the upper chamber, where only five out of 45 lawmakers support Lugo. Underscoring the gravity of the crisis, several South American nations immediately dispatched a mission of foreign ministers to Paraguay, rallying behind Lugo.
Bolivia, Nicaragua and Venezuela denounced the proceedings as a "cover-up" for a coup d'etat. "We are on the verge of seeing a coup in a new form," Nicaragua's envoy to the Organization of American States, Denis Moncada, said, calling on the regional body to shun a new government if Lugo loses his job.
The president's lawyer, Adolfo Ferreiro, said the proceedings "do not respect due process."
About 3,000 protesters gathered outside Congress to support Lugo, shouting slogans against legislators and in favor of the president, who was holed up just 200 meters (yards) away at his offices in the government palace.
Hundreds of riot police formed security cordons around the legislative building. No incidents were immediately reported. The lawmakers made their surprise vote over Lugo's "poor performance" during clashes between police and squatters last week that left at least six police and 11 peasants dead.
The poor farmers claim the huge estate was acquired by political influence decades ago. Lugo has struggled to fight back at what he says 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 Thursday. The people's will is "under relentless attack by groups that are always opposed to change."
Deserted by his former political allies, the leftist president accused opponents of trying to "rob the people of their supreme decision" when they elected him to a five-year term in 2008.