Guatemala president won't renew UN anti-corruption commission investigating him

Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales on Friday shut down a crusading UN-sponsored anti-graft commission that has pressed a number of high-profile corruption probes — including one pending against him over purported illicit campaign financing.

Probe was pending against president over alleged illicit campaign financing

A supporter of Ivan Velasquez, chief of the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, protests outside the UN commission's headquarters in Guatemala City on Friday. (Moises Castillo/Associated Press)

Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales said Friday he would shut down a UN-sponsored anti-graft commission that has pressed a number of high-profile corruption probes — including one pending against him over purported illicit campaign financing.

Speaking in front of civilian and military leaders as army vehicles surrounded the commission's headquarters in the capital, Morales said he had informed the UN secretary general of his decision to revoke the body's mandate and "immediately" begin transferring its capacities to Guatemalan institutions. 

The government later clarified in a statement that the commission will remain in the country until Sept. 3, 2019, during the transition period.

"It was respectfully requested of the United Nations that the commission initiate the transfer," the statement read, adding that the commission "will have a year to complete this objective contemplated in its mandate."

Minutes before the surprise announcement, U.S.-donated army vehicles that Guatemala uses to fight drug smuggling were deployed to the commission's headquarters in the capital in what critics called an attempt at intimidation.

The decision caps a long history of friction between the president and the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG).

In August 2017, Morales announced that he was expelling the commission's chief, Ivan Velasquez, but that move was quickly blocked by Guatemala's top court.

Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales, in a televised address on Friday, said he is not renewing the mandate of a UN-sponsored commission that has pressed a number of high-profile corruption probes in his country. (Oliver de Roos/Associated Press)

At the time Morales declared Velasquez a persona non grata and fired his foreign minister for refusing to carry out the order to expel him, but he later backed off and said he would obey the court's decision.

Morales accused the commission Friday of "violating our laws, inducing people and institutions to participate in acts of corruption and impunity," and "selective criminal prosecution with an ideological bias."

"Selective justice has been used to intimidate and terrorize the citizenry," he charged. "Judicial independence has been violated, with the intention of manipulating justice — actions that attack the presumption of innocence and due process."

Rights advocates decry decision

The announcement was promptly met with criticism from human rights officials and advocates.

"We sincerely regret the great mistake that the president made public in not renewing CICIG's mandate," Guatemalan human rights prosecutor Jordan Rodas said. "We are grateful for its valuable contribution in the country to the fight against corruption and impunity."

Morales is suspected of receiving at least $1 million US in undeclared contributions during the 2015 campaign. He has denied wrongdoing.

Supporters in favour of the decision to shut down the commission protest outside its headquarters on Friday. (Moises Castillo/Associated Press)

Last week the country's Supreme Court allowed a request brought by CICIG and Guatemalan prosecutors to strip his immunity from prosecution to go to Congress for consideration. If 105 lawmakers vote in favour of the request, it could open him up to investigation for possible illicit campaign financing.

"I think there's a conflict of interest and an attempt by President Morales to try to protect his own interests in light of the ongoing investigation and probe," said Adriana Beltran, director for citizen security at the Washington Office on Latin America, which advocates for human rights in the region.

Beltran said CICIG and Velasquez have made remarkable progress in strengthening the rule of law in Guatemala "despite constant attacks and efforts to try to undermine [their] work," and that "there's still much more that needs to be done."

Military surrounds CICIG headquarters

The commission released security camera video showing perhaps a dozen military jeeps taking up position curbside outside the headquarters Friday, some with soldiers manning machine gun turrets. CICIG spokesperson Matias Ponce said they were there for a few minutes, and later returned and drove by without stopping.

Rodas called the deployment an "oversize and intimidating presence."

"It is an unnecessary military movement that reminds us of days past when there were coups, and now we are a democracy — nobody is above the law," he said, adding that he would work to guarantee the safety of the commissioner and his team.

Prosecutors' spokesperson Julia Barrera said an investigation was opened "to see if any crime was committed" by deploying the vehicles.

The U.S. Embassy in Guatemala said in a statement that CICIG "is an effective and important partner to fight against impunity, improve governance and hold the corrupt accountable in Guatemala." It said that Washington would continue to support efforts against corruption and impunity in the country.

It was a much softer statement than the one from State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert last year, when Morales tried to expel Velasquez. Back then, she said Washington was "deeply concerned" and "it remains crucial that CICIG be permitted to work free from interference by the Guatemalan government."

Commission ensnared former president

Chief prosecutor Maria Consuelo Porras, who partnered with the commission in requesting the elimination of Morales's immunity of office, urged the government and the UN "to make their best efforts to reach agreements that benefit the Guatemalan people for peace, tranquillity and social harmony."

The commission's work with Guatemalan prosecutors has led to high-profile graft probes that ensnared dozens of politicians and businesspeople and even led to the downfall of former president Otto Perez Molina and his then-vice president.

The military deployment came the same day a UN human rights team was expelled from the Central American nation of Nicaragua after the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights published a critical report accusing President Daniel Ortega's government of violent repression of opposition protests.