ASUNCION (Reuters) - Lawmakers across Paraguay’s political divide are urging senators to approve stripping the headquarters of South American football of its legal immunity, a status that spotlights how soccer’s global governing body FIFA has often been able to skirt legally around national laws.
A draft bill to remove the immunity was put to Congress in late May, days after U.S. authorities indicted 14 past and present senior soccer officials and sports media executives on a series of corruption charges, including bribery and money laundering. FIFA President Sepp Blatter announced his resignation last week as the investigation of FIFA and its affiliates continued to widen.
Among those indicted was Nicolas Leoz, a Paraguayan national and former president of CONMEBOL, the sport’s governing organization in South America.
But if U.S. justice officials wanted Paraguayan authorities to raid the confederation’s HQ in the hunt for evidence, they will have been disappointed up to now. The pseudo-diplomatic status granted to the complex by the government in 1997 means that police and prosecutors are prohibited from searching it.
CONMEBOL’s home sprawls across the manicured grounds of a 98-acre (40-hectare) site on the outskirts of the Paraguayan capital, Asuncion, and boasts a luxury hotel and helipad.
The existing law provides legal immunity for the headquarters, although CONMEBOL’s officials themselves do not enjoy the same personal legal immunity as diplomats and their private homes and offices are not covered.
As a former president of the body, Leoz had no more immunity than any other Paraguayan citizen and no longer occupied any offices covered by the existing law, his lawyer Ricardo Preda said. Preda has said his client maintains his innocence.
Supporters of the bill, which sped through the lower house of Congress last week, say they are confident it will win the Senate’s backing because it is broadly popular. A vote in the senate could be held as early as Thursday.
The draft legislation would lift the legal shield around CONMEBOL’s physical space and allow police to search the complex for documents and computer files that might aid the U.S. investigation.
“The urgency for the Senate to act is precisely that documents could disappear while it is being debated,” said Hugo Rubin, the congressman who drafted the new legislation.
However, it was not clear if the legislation would stand up to challenges over documents and electronic files created before the new law became active. The draft bill makes no reference to retroactive powers, Rubin said, raising the specter of legal disputes over what might be permissible in court.
President Horacio Cartes has thrown his weight behind the bill and would be likely to sign the bill into effect rapidly if it is passed by the Senate. Cartes, a business magnate, became president in 2013, returning his center-right Colorado Party to power after a brief period of leftist rule of the country. The Colorado Party holds 19 of the Senate’s 45 seats.
The opposition Liberal Party, the second biggest bloc in the Senate, also supports the legislation.
Blas Llano, head of Congress and a Liberal Party senator, has said CONMEBOL’s immunity privileges “deserve to be revoked.”
Twenty three votes in favor are required for the bill to pass, ending a status that critics said echoed FIFA culture.
“The diplomatic immunity that CONMEBOL has received for nearly two decades in Paraguay is illustrative of the legal gray area in which FIFA operates within host countries,” security consultancy group InSight Crime wrote in a briefing note.
If immunity is lifted, police agents may swoop, as Swiss authorities have on FIFA and the FBI on the headquarters of Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football, CONCACAF, in Miami.
A spokesman for Paraguay’s national police did not respond to requests for comment.
Leoz, 86, and the other defendants were indicted by U.S. authorities for allegedly running a criminal enterprise that involved more than $150 million in bribes. He ran CONMEBOL (the South American Football Confederation) for 27 years until 2013, and is now under house arrest in his plush residence in an up-market neighborhood in the capital.
“There has been no request too search any of his properties. There has been no confiscation of his property,” said Preda, Leoz’s lawyer. Leoz is likely to fight extradition to the United States, given Preda said his client had been “surprised” by the charges and that he was innocent.
Leoz successfully brushed off previous corruption allegations and enjoys a quasi-hero status in the South American country, a footballing minnow that borders soccer giants Argentina and Brazil.
There are still some lawmakers who support the status quo. Senator Miguel Saguier defended the current immunity law and said it had been demanded by FIFA as a condition for Paraguay hosting CONMEBOL.
“Such immunity does not prevent the imprisonment of anyone. They are creating a storm in a tea cup,” Saguier said in recent comments to Paraguay’s National Radio. The Liberal Party senator did not say how he would vote.
On Saturday, Juan Angel Napout, the current head of CONMEBOL, promised to “promote transparency” and said the body would ensure the current immunity provisions did not hinder investigations.
Additional reporting by Mitra Taj in Lima; Writing by Richard Lough; Editing by Frances Kerry