Guatemala attorney general fires leading anti-corruption prosecutor

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Juan Francisco Sandoval, who was removed by the Guatemala's Attorney General as head of the Special Prosecutor's Office Against Impunity (FECI), speaks during a news conference in Guatemala City, Guatemala July 23, 2021. REUTERS/Luis Echeverria

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GUATEMALA CITY, July 23 (Reuters) - Guatemala's Attorney General on Friday removed an internationally known graft prosecutor from his post as head of the anti-corruption unit, prompting U.S. criticism that the move was a setback to the rule of law.

Juan Francisco Sandoval was dismissed as head of the Special Prosecutor's Office Against Impunity (FECI), which had been hit with legal challenges seeking to declare the agency unconstitutional.

The unit was originally created to tackle investigations spearheaded by the U.N.-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), which was ousted from the country in 2019.

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"Given the imminent lack of trust in the relationship, today his employment is terminated," Attorney General Maria Porras said in a statement, accusing Sandoval of frequent abuses and undermining her work. She did not provide details.

Sandoval, in a press conference alongside Guatemala's human rights ombudsman, said he would challenge his "illegal dismissal." He accused the attorney general of asking his agency to seek her opinion on any case that involved the government.

"If it is necessary to pay the price with my dismissal, I prefer that than to be silent about illegal activity," he said. "I am the latest in a string of prosecutors who have suffered the consequences for seeking truth and justice."

President Alejandro Giammattei had criticized Sandoval in an interview with Reuters in June that he and a leading judge had allowed political beliefs to color their work. read more

The United States, however, was a vocal supporter of Sandoval's work, which included investigating and litigating cases against former officials, presidents and business leaders in Guatemala. The State Department declared him an "anti-corruption champion" in a February award.

Sandoval's removal sparked a backlash from U.S. officials, including Acting Assistant Secretary of State Julie Chung who called the move "a significant setback to rule of law" and said it was essential that FECI remain intact.

"It contributes to perceptions of a systemic effort to undermine those known to be fighting corruption," Chung said on Twitter. "Guatemalan authorities must ensure his safety."

Juan Gonzalez, one of U.S. President Joe Biden's top aides for Latin America, said on Twitter, "I don't know what Porras is playing at, but with each day it is more obvious that it is not the rule of law."

The United States has committed to helping Central American countries fight impunity for high-level law breakers. In recent months, Washington has revoked the U.S. visas of two senior judges in Guatemala on graft suspicions and criticized lawmakers' refusal to swear in a corruption-fighting judge.

Guatemala's human rights ombudsman, Jordan Rodas, also called on Porras to resign.

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Reporting by Sofia Menchu; additional reporting by Eric Beech in Washington, Writing by Daina Beth Solomon and Cassandra Garrison; Editing by Cynthia Osterman, Grant McCool and Himani Sarkar

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