Guatemala leader at crossroads after court blocks expulsion

Associated Press

President Jimmy Morales faced a crossroads Wednesday after Guatemala's highest court ruled he could not expel the head of a U.N. anti-corruption commission from the country.

Morales cannot appeal Tuesday's decision by the Constitutional Court, and he now faces a separate legal fight over whether he should be stripped of his official immunity and face investigation over possible illicit campaign financing. That decision will be made by another body, the country's Supreme Court.

Morales issued his expulsion order for U.N. commission head Ivan Velasquez early Sunday, two days after Velasquez and Guatemala's chief prosecutor announced they were seeking to lift Morales' immunity from prosecution in order to investigate allegations of illegal financing for his 2015 presidential campaign.

The move drew quick condemnation both at home and abroad, where support is strong for the U.N. panel that has worked with local prosecutors over the last decade to combat the corruption long endemic in Guatemala.

As criticism rained down on Morales, the Constitutional Court suspended the order within hours, saying it would study the case. Then on Tuesday, the justices negated Morales' order declaring Velasquez persona non grata, ruling the order was issued improperly.

Presidential spokesman Heinz Hiemann said Morales "respects the law, due process and the rule of law," but had not yet received official notification of the ruling.

The president had already backed off his early defiance over the attempted expulsion.

"People of Guatemala, as president of the republic I have and will respect the decisions of the other branches of government. The rule of law should always prevail," he wrote in his Facebook account Monday.

The U.N. panel and local prosecutors have built popularity among many Guatemalans in their campaign to curb graft, including helping force the previous president from office two years ago.

Before the court ruled Tuesday, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said he was shocked by the president's action and expressed full support for Velasquez.

Also on Tuesday, Morales made his first public appearance since the crisis exploded, meeting with loyal mayors who voiced their support for him. The government distributed a video clip through its Twitter account that was just 14 seconds of mayors applauding Morales.

The mayors may have some self interest in seeing Velasquez go. The U.N. commission issued a report in 2015 saying that drug trafficking financed many political campaigns in Guatemala, especially in mayoral races.

Velasquez and chief prosecutor Thelma Aldana also have targeted several political parties, including Morales' National Convergence Front. Prosecutors allege that about $825,000 of financing for his 2015 campaign was hidden and other expenditures had no explainable source of funding.

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