By Daniela Desantis
ASUNCION (Reuters) - Paraguay's Senate will decide on Friday whether to oust President Fernando Lugo in a lightning-quick impeachment trial that he says is tantamount to a coup.
Lugo, a silver-haired former Catholic bishop who quit the Church to run for the presidency, is accused of mishandling armed clashes over a land eviction that killed 17 police and peasant farmers last week.
Lugo's rivals, who firmly control both houses of Congress, were confident they would get the votes needed to oust the president.
Lawmakers in the lower house agreed in a swift, near-unanimous vote on Thursday to start the impeachment. The Senate is set to vote at 4:30 p.m. (4:30 p.m. EDT) on whether to sack the president less than a year before his term is due to end.
"This is an 'express' coup because (lawmakers) have done it in the wee hours of the night," Lugo told television station Telesur late on Thursday.
He has refused to resign, resisting pressure from church leaders to step down to ease mounting tension, and his defense team asked the Supreme Court to intervene on the grounds that the impeachment violates the constitution.
According to the rules set out by the Senate a day earlier, Lugo will get two hours to defend himself.
"The president has been given fewer guarantees and fewer rights to defend himself than someone with a traffic fine," said one of Lugo's lawyers, Adolfo Ferreiro. "They seem to think anything can be justified in the name of politics."
Lugo's rivals said they were expected to get the two-thirds support needed to remove him from office and defended the legality of the impeachment process.
"There's nothing illegal here, there's no constitutional rupture, no coup," said center-right lawmaker Carlos Maria Soler. "There should be enough votes."
PRO-LUGO FORCES GATHER
In the downtown square facing the Congress building, several thousand people gathered, most of them peasant farmers and leftist activists carrying banners with pro-Lugo slogans and waving the red, white and blue national flag.
"We're going to defend our president because we're the ones who chose him," said Amelino Benitez, 18. "We won't allow them to steal the only power that we have - our vote."
Extra police were sent into the streets of the capital city Asuncion, where most businesses were shuttered and rush-hour traffic was unusually light.
Lugo, 61, a mild-mannered leftist who speaks the Guarani Indian language, vowed to champion the needs of poor Paraguayans when he was elected four years ago, ending six decades of rule by the Colorado party.
His election raised expectations among his supporters that he would tackle rampant corruption and gaping income inequalities in the soy-exporting nation of 6 million people.
Paraguay has been plagued by political instability and is known regionally for its marijuana crops and as a hub for smuggling and money laundering.
Lugo, however, has struggled to carry out his reform agenda, including his promise to redistribute land to peasant farmers, due to the opposition's tight grip on Congress. A cancer scare and several paternity scandals have also clouded his presidency.
CONCERN IN REGION
If convicted on Friday on the charge of failing to fulfill his duties by allowing social conflicts to escalate, Lugo would have to leave office. Under Paraguay's constitution, an impeached leader is replaced by the vice president, who completes the term.
The next presidential election is in 2013 and Lugo's vice president, Federico Franco, who has been a fierce critic of Lugo, has been expected to run for office.
Some critics accuse Lugo of sympathizing with the peasant farmers who ambushed police officers last week when they went to enforce an eviction order on a farm in the rural northeast.
Legislators also accuse Lugo of having backed a meeting of young Socialists at a site owned by the Armed Forces and of acting meekly to fight a small, violent left-wing group called the Paraguayan People's Army, known by its Spanish initials EPP.
The impeachment trial has raised concern among South American governments, who dispatched their foreign ministers to the sleepy Paraguayan capital of Asuncion late on Thursday.
Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa warned that the UNASUR regional grouping could refuse to recognize the new government if the Senate removed Lugo from office.
"We could opt to refuse recognition for the new government or even close borders," Correa told a news conference.
The ALBA bloc of left-wing Latin American leaders including Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez branded the impeachment trial "a maneuver by right-wing politicians."
The last time a Paraguayan leader was impeached was in 1999 when Raul Cubas was accused of failing to fulfill his duties following the murder of the vice president and the killing of seven protesters. Cubas resigned before a verdict was reached.
(Additional reporting by Didier Cristaldo; Writing by Helen Popper; Editing by Bill Trott)