September 1, 2015 / 10:35 PM / 2 years ago

Guatemala's Congress strips President Perez' immunity amid graft scandal

Members of the media await a vote by the congress to decide if Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina is to be stripped of his presidential immunity, in Guatemala City, September 1, 2015. REUTERS/Jorge Dan Lopez

GUATEMALA CITY (Reuters) - Guatemala’s Congress on Tuesday voted unanimously to strip President Otto Perez of immunity, paving the way for prosecutors to charge him in an unprecedented graft scandal that has engulfed his government.

Perez, a 64-year-old retired general, has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing and has said he will not resign over a scandal that has sent thousands of protesters onto the streets and gutted his cabinet.

But in a vote in Congress on Tuesday, Perez faced a serious blow as all 132 lawmakers present voted to remove his immunity, just days before a presidential election to be held on Sunday.

Perez cannot run for re-election under the constitution, and is set to remain in office until a handover in January.

As the vote tally reached above the 105-vote threshold needed to carry the motion, lawmakers inside the hall erupted in cheers.

Sources from the attorney general’s office involved in the case said prosecutors would now be able to issue an arrest warrant against Perez. However, it was not immediately clear when that could happen, and what charges he would face.

Last month, Perez survived a similar vote in Congress, when more than half of lawmakers voted to lift his immunity but the total fell short of the two-thirds majority needed.

However, that vote took place before prosecutors said publicly it was highly probable that Perez was involved in the wrongdoing, in which importers avoided paying customs duties in exchange for bribes.

According to the Guatemalan constitution, the president is immune from prosecution and it requires a two-thirds majority from Congress to strip it.

Last May, Vice President Roxana Baldetti resigned after news reports linked her to a customs corruption racket. She denied any wrongdoing but has been arrested and charged with illicit association, bribery and fraud over the customs racket.

Reporting by Sofia Menchu; Writing by Gabriel Stargardter; Editing by Simon Gardner and Diane Craft

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