Guatemala's ex-VP ordered to stand trial for corruption

AP News
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Posted: Aug 25, 2015 8:21 PM
Guatemala's ex-VP ordered to stand trial for corruption

GUATEMALA CITY (AP) — Guatemala's former vice president was ordered to stand trial Tuesday, while the Supreme Court took the first step in allowing impeachment proceedings against President Otto Perez Molina in a fraud scandal that is pushing the country into political crisis.

Protesters demanding Perez Molina's resignation blocked roads on the outskirts of Guatemala City as a judge ordered former Vice President Roxana Baldetti to stand trial on charges of conspiracy, customs fraud and bribery, based on allegations that she accepted $3.7 million in bribes as part of the customs scandal that forced her from office. The judge has yet to rule whether she will be jailed during the trial.

With the unanimous Supreme Court ruling Tuesday, the congress now will vote whether to take away Perez Molina's immunity as a sitting president so he can be prosecuted and possibly removed from office. An attempt several weeks ago to start impeachment proceedings based on a request by legislator Amilcar Pop was voted down.

Prosecutors and the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala requested the removal of his immunity based on allegations that he too is linked to the network of officials and individuals who received bribes from businessmen to evade import duties.

"We have hit a really serious political crisis," said former Vice President Eduardo Stein. "Never before have prosecutors publicly requested lifting the immunity of the president."

Perez Molina rejected the possibility of resigning in a televised speech on Sunday, and he has denied involvement in the scandal, which is pushing him into a corner as it grows.

Since Friday, five of Perez Molina's 13 cabinet ministers have resigned, eight vice-ministers and two secretaries amidst protests that Perez Molina quit. Business and church groups have joined the calls for him to step down.

Student leader Lucia Ixchiu called the president "cowardly" for his Sunday speech and becoming more entrenched rather that heeding the "widespread clamor for his departure."

According to the impunity commission, there are strong indications that the president was tied to the criminal ring known as "La Linea," or "The Line," the fraud operation allegedly led by Baldetti's aide, Juan Carlos Monzon Rojas, who is currently a fugitive.

Prosecutors argued Tuesday that Baldetti was one of the main benefactors of the ring, in part based on some 88,000 wiretaps and documents revealing how the money was divided.

Her defense attorney, Mario Cano, called the charges political and said none of the wiretaps carried her voice.

Tensions are mounting ahead of the Sept. 6 elections, which are to elect Perez Molina's successor.

Protesters pledged more demonstrations in coming days, some setting off fireworks to celebrate the two rulings on Tuesday against the country's two top politicians. Farm leader Carlos Barrientos said road blockades may be erected in about two dozen points around the country. Some protesters are demanding the elections be postponed until the corruption scandal is resolved and Perez Molina resigns.

Human rights activist Helen Mack said she believes Perez Molina might try to spark a confrontation "to make himself look like a political victim, and escape justice."

Mack noted that protests so far have been peaceful.

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Associated Press writer Alvaro Montenegro contributed to this report from Guatemala City.