Guatemala Congress again votes to maintain president's immunity

GUATEMALA CITY (Reuters) - Guatemala’s Congress on Thursday once again voted to maintain beleaguered President Jimmy Morales’ immunity and shield him from a probe into suspected illicit campaign funding, a move that could raise tensions among anti-graft protesters.

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For the second time this month, lawmakers discussed a motion, pushed by the attorney general’s office and the United Nations-backed International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), to remove Morales’ immunity.

Although the motion enjoyed greater support than before, the 70 votes in favor fell short of the two-thirds of Congress necessary for it to pass.

The commission wants to determine the origin of some $800,000 in funds Morales managed as secretary general of the conservative National Convergence Front (FCN) party he led from 2015 to 2016. Morales has denied any wrongdoing.

Critics say lawmakers threw their lot in with Morales as they fear the scope of a larger commission investigation into all major parties’ campaign financing.

The latest vote, in which 42 lawmakers voted against the motion with 46 absent, came the day after thousands of Guatemalans took to the streets, calling for the resignation of Morales and lawmakers, whom they blame for trying to trip up anti-graft investigators.

“Today ... Congress has exposed itself in front of the people with this decision,” said Raul Romero, a conservative lawmaker from the Force party, who voted in favor of stripping Morales’ immunity.

In August, Guatemala’s attorney general and CICIG jointly sought to investigate Morales, a former comedian, over the illegal financing allegation. Two days later, Morales declared the head of the U.N. body “persona non grata.”

Under the leadership of Ivan Velasquez, a veteran Colombian prosecutor, the commission has caused problems for Morales, first investigating his son and brother, and then training its sights on him.

The Guatemalan president won office in 2015 running on a platform of honest governance after Perez Molina was forced to resign and imprisoned in a multi-million dollar graft case stemming from a commission investigation.

Reporting by Bill Barreto and Enrique Andres Pretel; Editing by Richard Chang