September 2, 2015 / 9:05 PM / 2 years ago

Guatemalan President Perez will not flee over graft scandal: lawyer

Guatemalan President Otto Perez speaks during a news conference in the Presidential House in Guatemala City, August 31, 2015.Jorge Dan Lopez

GUATEMALA CITY (Reuters) - Guatemalan leader Otto Perez, who is fighting to save his presidency after becoming engulfed in a corruption scandal that gutted his government and sparked widespread protests, will not flee the country, his lawyer said on Wednesday.

Perez, a 64-year-old retired general who was elected on a ticket to combat crime and corruption, has denied any wrongdoing and said he would not resign over a graft scandal that has upended his administration ahead of Sunday's presidential election.

He has become increasingly isolated in recent weeks and on Tuesday saw his options narrow as lawmakers unanimously voted to strip his immunity. That led prosecutors, who deemed him a flight risk, to bar him from leaving the country. A warrant for his arrest could materialize soon, prosecutors said.

Perez's lawyer, Cesar Calderon, said the president was willing to appear before a judge, but only if he was called to.

"He's not going to flee," Calderon said in a telephone interview on Wednesday. "We're here, we're available to deal with the problem. ... Let's end the speculation, let's end the morbid fascination."

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

Perez's conservative administration has spent much of this year mired in public protests and scandals over corruption allegations against senior officials, several of whom the retired general fired during a cabinet purge in May.

Prosecutors have said it is highly probable that Perez was involved in a customs racket dubbed "La Linea," or the line, due to a phone hotline used in the scandal, in which importers avoided paying customs duties in exchange for bribes.

Last May, Vice President Roxana Baldetti resigned after she was linked to "La Linea." She denied any wrongdoing but has been arrested and charged with illicit association, bribery and fraud over the customs racket.

Attorney General Thelma Aldana said on Wednesday the president is also being investigated for money laundering, which could lead to the freezing of his assets.

"We have absolute freedom to investigate any lead that we think might be pertinent relating to the president," she said.

Aldana said the Supreme Court must now assign a judge to handle Perez' case, most likely the same one who sent Baldetti to prison.

Once assigned, the judge could issue an arrest warrant and decide whether Perez should await trial behind bars.

If Perez were jailed, the judge would be able to order the end of his presidency, she said. According to the constitution, current vice president Alejandro Maldonado would step in.

Additional reporting by Sofia Menchu; Writing by Gabriel Stargardter; Editing by Simon Gardner and Richard Chang

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