Guatemala top court blocks president's move to expel UN anti-corruption chief

President Jimmy Morales announced Sunday he was expelling the head of a UN anti-corruption commission that is investigating his campaign's financing — only to have the order blocked hours later by Guatemala's top court.

Commission is investigating the campaign financing of President Jimmy Morales

A man holds up a campaign poster of Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales during a gathering to show support for the Commissioner of the United Nations International Commission Against Impunity, Ivan Velasquez, in Guatemala City on Saturday. (Moises Castillo/Associated Press)

President Jimmy Morales announced Sunday he was expelling the head of a UN anti-corruption commission that is investigating his campaign's financing — only to have the order blocked hours later by Guatemala's top court.

A video posted on the government's Twitter site early Sunday showed Morales declaring Ivan Velasquez "non grata" and ordering him to leave the country immediately. He also announced he was firing Foreign Minister Carlos Raul Morales for failure to carry out the expulsion.

Morales said nothing of kicking out the entire commission of foreign experts, but the expulsion would leave its future unclear. Two years remain on its mandate.

However, by midday, Francisco de Mata Vela, head of Guatemala's constitutional court, said that body had issued a temporary injunction blocking the order to expel Velasquez. The court will now analyze the case before reaching a definitive decision. It was not clear how long that would take.

Constitutional Court President Jose Francisco de Mata Vela says the top court has blocked Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales' order to expel the head of a UN anti-corruption commission. (Luis Soto/Associated Press)

Velasquez heads a 10-year-old commission of experts that has worked with Guatemalan prosecutors to root out corruption. It was key to bringing down former President Otto Perez Molina, who was forced to resign in 2015 and remains in prison.

Chief prosecutor Thelma Aldana, working with the UN commission, announced Friday that she was asking the Supreme Court to recommend stripping Morales of his immunity from prosecution in order to investigate financing of his 2015 campaign, when he ran on the slogan "Neither corrupt nor a crook." If the court agrees, the decision on immunity would be made by Congress.

The prosecutor said Morales had refused to account for more than $800,000 US in campaign financing and had hidden his own party's accounts. Velasquez said in the joint news conference with Aldana that financing of some campaign expenditures could not be explained.

Morales has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing.

Some 2,500 people demonstrated in the capital on Saturday to demand Morales resign.

Commission plays 'vital role' against corruption

The embassies of international donor countries that support the UN commission — U.S., Germany, Canada, Spain, France, U.K., Sweden and Switzerland as well as the European Union — issued a joint statement regretting Morales' decision.

The commission "has played a vital role in the fight against impunity and corruption that undermine security and prosperity in Guatemala. The decision to expel Commissioner Ivan Velasquez harms the ability of CICIG [Comision Internacional contra la Impunidad en Guatemala] to achieve its mandate," the statement said.

U.S. Rep. Eliot Engel, ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, expressed disappointment in Morales' decision. In a statement, he said the U.S. government would examine the future of its foreign assistance to Guatemala.

About 50 people gathered Sunday at the commission's headquarters, among them some foreign ambassadors along with Guatemala's human rights prosecutor, in a show of support for Velasquez. The crowd chanted "Friend Ivan the people are with you."

Human rights prosecutor Jordan Rodas spent time with Velasquez on Sunday to guarantee his safety. He said Velasquez assured him that he continues to lead the commission.

"The commissioner was doing well and is very appreciative of the support," Rodas said.

Health Minister Lucrecia Hernandez Mack and her deputies resigned, saying that by expelling Velasquez, Morales had taken a position in favour of impunity and the corrupt sectors of the country.

The president's action Sunday capped days of speculation that Morales would move against Velasquez. The president had travelled to the UN last week to meet with UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and the government said topics included circumscribing the mandate of the anti-corruption commission led by Velasquez.

'In the interest of' Guatemalans

In Sunday's video, Morales said he was acting "in the interest of the people of Guatemala," though he did not make any direct allegations against Velasquez.

In May, a Guatemalan judge ordered that the brother and son of Morales stand trial on fraud charges. They allegedly submitted about $23,000 of false receipts in a tax fraud scheme in 2013, before Morales took office. Both have maintained their innocence.

Perez Molina resigned along with his vice-president, Roxanna Baldetti, in 2015 and both remain jailed awaiting trial on corruption charges related to a huge customs fraud scheme.

They have also been investigated for bribery and money laundering crimes stemming from a criminal graft network. Prosecutors alleged that Perez Molina received some $37.9 million from companies in return for awarding construction contracts. He also allegedly accepted a helicopter, a sports car, a plane and other gifts.