GUATEMALA CITY (Reuters) - Former Guatemalan President Alfonso Portillo was extradited on Friday to the United States to face money-laundering charges, just days after former dictator Efrain Rios Montt’s genocide conviction was overturned.
A U.S. grand jury decided in 2009 that Portillo, who was in office from 2000 to 2004, should face charges that he laundered $70 million through U.S. banks.
A Guatemalan court cleared Portillo of local embezzlement charges in May 2011, but the country’s Supreme Court later endorsed an extradition request by the United States that Portillo face money-laundering charges.
“This decision is an important affirmation of the rule of law and due process in Guatemala,” the U.S. embassy said after Portillo was flown out of the country.
Local authorities picked Portillo up from a military hospital where he was receiving treatment for liver problems. He was transferred to the hospital in April from a jail where he had been held pending a decision on the extradition.
Portillo’s lawyers said police put the former president on a plane headed for New York.
“They showed up at the hospital, said, ‘Get dressed, put on this shirt and we are taking you to the air force base,’” attorney Mauricio Berreondo told reporters just before the flight took off.
“See you soon Guatemala, this is a kidnapping,” local media quoted Portillo as saying at the airport.
The U.S. grand jury’s indictment claims Portillo, 61, laundered government money through U.S. and European accounts. French prosecutors are also investigating the allegations.
Claudia Paz y Paz, Guatemala’s attorney general, said the extradition was conducted properly and there were no legal reasons to prevent it. “As far as I know, there is no legal action pending,” she said. “It’s solid.”
Portillo took office promising to redistribute wealth in the poverty-plagued Central American country. He fled Guatemala for Mexico shortly after completing his term in 2004.
He was extradited from Mexico to Guatemala in 2008 to stand trial on the embezzlement charges.
Portillo’s supporters were quick to defend the former president.
“He hasn’t committed a single crime,” Carlos Estrada told reporters at the airport. In a cry to arms, he said: “We’re going to take the country, it doesn’t matter what it takes, even our lives.”
Portillo’s extradition came just days after former Guatemalan dictator Efrain Rios Montt, 86, had his 80-year genocide conviction annulled by Guatemala’s top court. The May 10 conviction had been hailed as a landmark for justice in the Central American nation where as many as 250,000 people were killed in a 1960-1996 civil war.
Rios Montt, whose government was supported by the administration of U.S. President Ronald Reagan, had been found guilty of overseeing the killings by the armed forces of at least 1,771 members of the Maya Ixil population during his 1982-83 rule.
Critics say the annulment of his conviction highlights the weaknesses of Guatemala’s justice system.
Editing by Gabriel Stargardter, Kieran Murray and Philip Barbara