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Guatemalan Court Blocks President's Expulsion of U.N. Prosecutor -- Update

27 Aug 2017 7:03 pm
By Dudley Althaus 

MEXICO CITY -- Guatemala's political crisis deepened on Sunday as a constitutional court temporarily barred President Jimmy Morales from expelling a United Nations-backed anticorruption prosecutor probing allegations of illegal financing in the president's 2015 election campaign.

Several cabinet members resigned to protest the president's expulsion order, and hundreds of protesters in Guatemala City gathered outside the presidential palace and the foreign ministry as Mr. Morales held an emergency meeting with remaining members of his government.

Earlier in the day, Mr. Morales said he was acting "in the interests of the Guatemalan people, the rule of law and institutionality" by ordering Ivan Velásquez, the Colombian prosecutor who heads the U.N.'s anticorruption agency in Guatemala, to leave the country and declaring him "persona non grata."

The president's announcement was made by way of a video posted on his Twitter account early Sunday. Mr. Morales, a popular television comedian who had never held public office before winning the presidency, has denied any wrongdoing.

The expulsion order came two days after Guatemala's attorney general and Mr. Velásquez asked the country's Supreme Court to remove the president's immunity from prosecution for alleged electoral crimes. U.N. Secretary General António Guterres was shocked by the expulsion order, a spokesman said, reiterating Mr. Guterres's support for Mr. Velásquez's work.

Formed a decade ago by an agreement between the U.N., Guatemalan officials and donor governments including the U.S., Mr. Velásquez's agency -- the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, or CICIG -- is tasked with helping local prosecutors take on the country's endemic corruption and organized crime networks, which critics describe as a parallel government in the country of 15 million.

A respected Colombian prosecutor, Mr. Velásquez was appointed to his post four years ago. The current mandate of both CICIG and Mr. Velásquez runs to September 2019.

The attempt to expel Mr. Velásquez, who has received strong support from across Guatemalan society and from the U.S. and other foreign governments, has sharpened the country's constitutional crisis over the corruption probe, analysts say.

Besides Sunday's court injunction against his expulsion order, Mr. Morales has also faced stiff resistance from within his own government, according to local media reports. The president on Sunday said he had fired Foreign Minister Juan Carlos Morales, who isn't related to him, and the deputy prime minister, after they refused to implement the order, according to local media reports. The ministers couldn't immediately be reached for comment.

"[Morales] has completely isolated himself," Eric Olson, a Central America expert at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, said of the Guatemalan president. "The international community is completely united and it looks like they are going to take a very hard line on this."

Mr. Velásquez and Attorney General Thelma Aldana announced Friday that investigators have identified at least $825,000 in anonymous contributions to the president's election campaign that went unreported to regulators. As secretary-general of his political party, Mr. Morales is legally liable for the alleged transgression, they say.

If the high court approves their request, Mr. Morales's immunity could then be revoked by a two-thirds vote in Congress. That would expose him to possible criminal prosecution. Mr. Morales's own political party, the National Convergence Front, holds just 11 of 158 seats in the congress. But Mr. Velásquez and Ms. Aldana last week also accused the legislature's two largest parties of campaign irregularities, perhaps strengthening their support of the president, analysts say.

The gathering crisis echoes a similar scandal two years ago that led to the resignation of then President Otto Pérez Molina, his vice president and other officials. Mr. Velásquez at that time was investigating a customs-fraud ring allegedly operated by the vice president and others.

Mr. Pérez Molina, a retired army general, unsuccessfully tried to get Mr. Velásquez removed by the U.N. amid that probe but stopped short of kicking him out, as Mr. Morales is trying to do. After legislators removed Mr. Pérez Molina's immunity, he stepped down in September 2015, months before the end of his term, and was arrested soon after. Mr. Pérez Molina, who has declared himself innocent, is currently on trial in Guatemala on charges related to alleged customs fraud.

The request to strip Mr. Morales's immunity came shortly before the president met in New York with Mr. Guterres on Friday to ask that the mandate of Mr. Velásquez and CICIG be curtailed.

The secretary-general's office later issued a statement supporting both CICIG and Mr. Velásquez. That left expelling Mr. Velásquez as the Guatemalan president's only viable option in attempting to derail the investigations.

Considering the powerful national and international support for Mr. Velásquez, Mr. Olson and other analysts had considered such a move "political suicide."

Fears that Mr. Morales would seek Mr. Velásquez's removal sparked outrage last week across Guatemala's political spectrum, from conservative business leaders to human-rights activists. The reports also drew sharp warnings from the U.S. and other governments that have financed the Cicig's work and provided economic aid to Guatemala.

The attorney general's office and CICIG on Thursday accused two other leading political parties of illicit funding and other violations related to the 2015 election.

"These are investigations that constitute an enormous step in the purging of a corrupt system to its roots," Prensa Libre, a leading Guatemalan newspaper, said in a Saturday editorial.

The charges against Mr. Morales mark the latest in a series of corruption scandals that have plagued Guatemala since the country's return to democracy in the 1980s, following decades of military rule and a civil war that killed hundreds of thousands, primarily indigenous Maya villagers.

Write to Dudley Althaus at Dudley.Althaus@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

August 27, 2017 15:03 ET (19:03 GMT)

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