September 8, 2015 / 7:19 PM / 2 years ago

Guatemala judge jails ex-president Perez pending graft trial

Former Guatemala's President Otto Perez attends a hearing at the Supreme Court of Justice in Guatemala City, Guatemala September 8, 2015. REUTERS/Jose Cabezas

GUATEMALA CITY (Reuters) - A Guatemalan judge on Tuesday ordered fallen President Otto Perez to remain in jail while awaiting trial over a graft scandal that stoked a political crisis, charging him with criminal association, taking bribes and customs fraud.

Perez, a 64-year-old retired general who was elected in late 2011 on a vow to fight crime and corruption, resigned as president last week, just as the country headed into the first round of a presidential election. He was held in jail pending a hearing into accusations he made millions of dollars from a customs racket.

There are “sufficient indications that suggest he took part” in the scam, Judge Miguel Angel Galvez told a hearing. Dressed in a dark suit, Perez sat frowning during the hearing and jotted in a notebook.

Galvez gave investigators three months to complete their probe, pending a trial start date of Dec. 21. Perez could potentially avoid trial if his defense team manages to convince the court that the evidence against him is insufficient.

“I don’t understand why I‘m facing trial, or ... jail. I don’t understand because there was no solid argument against me regarding any of the three crimes,” Perez said.

Prosecutors said he was involved in a customs scam dubbed “La Linea” (“The Line”), referring to a phone hotline used by importers to avoid paying customs duties in exchange for bribes.

Perez’s conservative government spent much of this year facing corruption allegations, and he fired several of his cabinet members in a purge in May.

On Sunday, comic actor Jimmy Morales rode a wave of outrage over the scandal to win the most votes in Guatemala’s presidential election, and he is seen as having a strong chance of winning a runoff next month.

It remains unclear whether he will face former first lady Sandra Torres or conservative businessman Manuel Baldizon, who remain neck and neck as the vote count from Sunday’s vote continues.

Congress has sworn in Perez’ vice president, Alejandro Maldonado, to fill out his term until power is handed over to the eventual winner in January.

Former Vice President Roxana Baldetti resigned after she was linked to “La Linea.” She denied any wrongdoing but was arrested on the same charges Perez now faces.

More than 20 other officials, including the president of the central bank, have been arrested in connection with the scam, though how much money was involved is still unclear.

Prosecutors and a powerful United Nations-backed anti-corruption body known as the CICIG moved against Perez following months of investigations and findings taken from some 89,000 telephone taps, almost 6,000 emails and 17 raids.

Reporting by Enrique Andres Pretel,; Editing by Simon Gardner, Andrew Hay and Ken Wills

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