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Briefing: Was Zelaya's ouster a coup?

Hondurans debate the legality of the forced exile of President Manuel Zelaya.

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Under the nation's penal codes, says Mr. Sanchez, the military could argue that it was operating under "necessity," to maintain peace, in sending Zelaya on a plane to Costa Rica. And under Article 272 of the Constitution, the military could also argue that it was exiling the leader in its mission to defend public order and the Constitution.

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Why are so many nations against the interim government?

Honduran officials say that the international community does not understand the Honduran Constitution nor the threat to democracy that Zelaya represented, and that they have erroneously come to their conclusions. Yet many observers say that, regardless of the legal arguments presented, the Honduran de facto government remains isolated in its judgment.

"They claim there was a legal resolution backing military force. To be frank, if you have a legal ruling from the Supreme Court, you send the police. You do not send the military at 5 a.m. That is not normal law enforcement. That is an old-fashioned coup d'état," says Kevin Casas-Zamora, a former vice president of Costa Rica who is now at the Brookings Institution in Washington. He says the legal claims raised by the interim government "smack of postfact rationalization," he says. "Nobody believes that story outside of Honduras."

Zelaya is charged with breaking laws prior to his ouster. "But having him removed by gunpoint, and put on a plane, is not in the Constitution, either," says Christopher Sabatini, editor of the New York-based Americas Quarterly. He argues Zelaya should have been arrested and tried.

Is anyone likely to go to jail, and under what laws?

The interim government is alleging that Zelaya has broken myriad laws and said initially that he should face arrest on various charges, including treason and abuse of authority. If not granted amnesty, Zelaya could be tried under Honduran law and face jail time.

The Honduran government had sent a request for an international warrant for Zelaya's arrest for "misuse of authority, usurpation of public functions, offenses against the system of government, and treason." But Interpol said that it declined to carry out the warrant, because it seemed politically motivated. It noted that it "is strictly forbidden for the organization to undertake any intervention or activities of a political, military, religious or racial character." Interpol also declined because it said Hondurans had a chance to arrest Zelaya, had that been their wish.

There is no international court that rules on cases of coups. The only recourse is making the new government subject to nonrecognition, which the OAS and several world governments have already done. Sanchez says that if the military is found guilty for removing Zelaya from the country – forced exile was not specifically put in the warrant order by the Supreme Court – it could possibly face charges in Honduras. Zelaya could also sue the country at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, he says.

The interim government does not risk any charges. Under Article 242 of the Constitution, which lays out the rules for succession of power, Micheletti, as the president of the Congress and with no standing vice presidents at the time, was the person in line to take over the presidency and name a cabinet. The Congress voted the day of Zelaya's ouster to strip him of his powers and instate Micheletti as provisional president of Honduras.