Guatemala bars entry to head of U.N. anti-corruption body

GUATEMALA CITY (Reuters) - Guatemala’s government said on Tuesday it had barred the head of a U.N. anti-corruption body from entering the country, days after the agency’s mandate was revoked during an escalation of a long-running dispute between the two sides.

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In a statement, the government said President Jimmy Morales had ordered Ivan Velasquez, head of the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), to be denied entry and asked the United Nations to send a replacement.

On Friday, Morales said the commission’s mandate would end next September, attacking the body which brought down his predecessor as president with a corruption probe.

In a separate graft case, the CICIG and Guatemala’s attorney general last year attempted to prosecute Morales on suspicion he had engaged in illegal financing during his 2015 presidential election campaign. He denied any wrongdoing.

By then, tensions were already running high between Morales and Velasquez because the commission had previously launched graft probes against members of the president’s family.

In a statement, the government said Morales had barred Velasquez on the recommendation of the National Security Council, which accused the CICIG’s head of attacking Guatemala’s governability, public order and justice.

“At the same time, a request has been made to the U.N. Secretary General for a substitute for Mr. Ivan Velasquez to be designated,” the statement said.

CICIG spokesman Matias Ponce said Velasquez was still in the United States and had not yet been notified of the ban.

A spokeswoman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights told a Tuesday press briefing in Geneva that Guatemala’s decision not to renew the CICIG’s mandate could be a significant setback in efforts to root out criminal networks in the country.

The Guatemalan attorney general’s office and the CICIG in August again sought to bring Morales to trial for suspected illicit campaign financing. That process is ongoing. Last year, Congress voted not to impeach the president on such charges.

Morales’ credibility has suffered due to the CICIG’s investigations, and he has moved to align himself more closely with the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump.

In December, Guatemala was one of a handful of countries to back Trump’s decision to move the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem in a vote at the United Nations.

Reporting by Bill Barreto in Guatemala City and Lizbeth Diaz in Mexico City; Editing by Richard Chang