Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina appeared in court on Thursday September 3rd to answer charges of his alleged involvement in a customs-fraud ring, hours after resigning from his post, as a growing corruption scandal plunged the country into its worst political crisis since the end of a brutal civil war 20 years ago.
A judge will then determine whether Mr. Pérez Molina goes to jail to await trial or gets a stay to allow him to remain free, the country’s prosecution agency reported.
The 64-year-old former general, whose presidential term ends in January, resigned late on Wednesday, September 2nd, after a judge issued a warrant for his arrest. Under Guatemalan law, Vice President Alejandro Maldonado Aguirre will take office to serve out Mr. Pérez Molina’s term.
Pérez Molina has been accused of corruption, bribery and belonging to an illegal organization.
Meanwhile, former vice president Roxana Baldetti, who was also arrested last month on suspicion of involvement in the same fraud scheme, has been transferred from a military barracks, where she was being held in comfortable surroundings. She is now in Santa Teresa women’s prison, where she will have to live alongside convicted criminals.
Hundreds of people celebrated Baldetti’s transfer, cheering and setting off firecrackers as the car that took her to Santa Teresa passed by.
Guatemala will hold elections this coming Sunday September 6th to choose Pérez Molina’s successor, in a climate of widespread outrage over the corruption scandal engulfing the ex President and broad rejection of the traditional political elite.
“The Guatemalan people have been at the center of great moments of change and upheaval in our institutions, mobilized by their disgust with broken systems,” said Vice President Maldonado, a lawyer and former judge on the Constitutional Court, after taking the oath of office.
“The new government must emerge from the need to inspire citizens’ confidence, opening a space in public service for mature and experienced people but also young professionals and social activists.” he added.
Congress had earlier voted unanimously to accept Perez’s resignation, which he submitted just before midnight Wednesday after lawmakers stripped him of his presidential immunity — a first in Guatemala — and a judge issued a warrant for his arrest.
As Maldonado was donning the blue-and-white presidential sash, Perez appeared before the Supreme Court, looking uncomfortable as prosecutors detailed their accusations against him.
The retired general lowered his eyes as prosecutors played out wire-tapped phone calls they say implicate him in a scheme to defraud the state.
Investigators believe the 64-year-old conservative received US$3.7 million in bribes paid by importers in exchange for illegal discounts on their customs duty, said prosecutor Antonio Morales.
“I’m calm and I will face the situation bravely because I’ve done nothing wrong,” Perez told a local radio station before his court appearance, where he sported a dark suit, red tie and a haggard look on his face.
The embattled president stepped down after clinging to power through months of mounting protests.
Guatemalans fed up with corruption erupted in celebration outside the Supreme Court early Thursday on the news of his resignation.
“Otto, you thief, you’re going to Pavon!” they chanted, referring to one of the country’s main prisons.
Thousands have hit the streets in protest since the scandal first erupted in April, on a scale never before seen in Guatemala.
The accusations have stoked outrage in the Central American country of 15 million people, 53.7 percent of whom live in poverty, where the scars are still fresh from a 36-year civil war that ended in 1996, a and which has the dubious distinction of being one of Latin America’s most violent nations, with some 6,000 murders each year.
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