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 a graft scandal that could lead to his ouster.
Perez, a 64-year-old retired general who was elected on a ticket to combat crime and corruption, 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.
Lawmakers on Tuesday dealt the isolated Perez a serious blow as all 132 present voted to remove his immunity, just before a presidential election to be held on Sunday.
The public prosecutor’s office said after the vote a judge had agreed to issue an order preventing the president from leaving the country, as he was a flight risk.
“In the eyes of the justice system he is now a common citizen given he no longer has immunity, and so there will be a criminal prosecution against the president,” Attorney General Thelma Aldana told a news conference.
“Guatemala is showing that no one is above the law,” she added, saying she could not comment on when the president might be detained.
Aldana said prosecutors were still considering what charges to bring against Perez, but they would likely include tax fraud and illicit association.
Perez, cannot run for re-election under the constitution, and is set to remain in office until a handover in January. He said on Monday he would cooperate with investigators, but would not step aside. His spokesman repeated that stance after Tuesday’s vote.
As the vote tally reached above the 105-vote threshold needed to carry the motion, lawmakers inside the hall erupted in cheers. Outside Congress, protesters set off firecrackers and blared music in celebration.
“This is a very important step for Guatemala. Guatemalans have won,” said Salvador Baldizon, a local politician and brother of presidential race front-runner Manuel Baldizon, after the vote.
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.
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 in a scam dubbed “La Linea”, or the line, a phone hotline used in the scandal.
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 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.
Additional reporting by Alexandra Alper; Writing by Gabriel Stargardter; Editing by Simon Gardner, Diane Craft and Lisa Shumaker