Protesters celebrate as ex-leader sent to jail

Guatemala's former president Otto Perez Molina (left) being taken away at the end of a hearing at the Supreme Court in Guatemala City on Thursday. He was sent to Matamoros prison, which is on a military base there.
Guatemala's former president Otto Perez Molina (left) being taken away at the end of a hearing at the Supreme Court in Guatemala City on Thursday. He was sent to Matamoros prison, which is on a military base there.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Guatemalan president imprisoned hours after quitting amid corruption scandal

GUATEMALA CITY • Just hours after tendering his resignation as president of Guatemala, Otto Perez Molina was sent to jail to await the conclusion of a hearing examining his role in a multimillion-dollar customs fraud case that has shaken the nation and sent reverberations throughout the region.

The decision to jail Perez Molina highlighted the seismic change sweeping through Guatemala after the corruption accusations in April, and offered a dramatic validation of a growing street demonstration movement demanding his ouster and prosecution.

For much of Guatemala's violent history, marked by dictatorship and military repression, such a scene would have been unimaginable: A sitting president forced to resign, then sit before a court to hear charges levelled against him and ultimately spend the night in a prison he once might have overseen as a top general. All that in the course of a single day.

Until now, Perez Molina gave no indication he would go gently.

PLEDGE TO FACE LAW

All Guatemalans have to respect the law, and I assure you I will respect the law and this process.

OTTO PEREZ MOLINA, former Guatemalan leader

Even as street protests grew to include tens of thousands of citizens demanding that he step down over accusations that he played a major role in a multimillion-dollar customs fraud scheme, the president, who was also the military's negotiator during talks to end the nation's bloody 36-year civil war, denied wrongdoing and refused to leave office.

But just before midnight on Wednesday, he filed his resignation, saying he would "face justice and resolve my personal situation".

In the courtroom on Thursday, he listened calmly while prosecutors played wiretap recordings that they said implicated him as the leader of a vast fraud ring.

His face arranged in a look of alert composure, the former president took notes as more than six hours of recordings were played. Afterwards, he paused to speak to reporters, proclaiming his innocence and pledging to face the allegations.

"It's one thing to listen but another thing to investigate," he said, referring to the long day of taped conversations. "All Guatemalans have to respect the law, and I assure you I will respect the law and this process."

As the hearing was under way, a modest but jubilant crowd filled the city's central plaza, the nerve centre of the protest movement that began five months ago. As a sporadic rain fell, the crowd passed the time the same way it had for months, with drums, chants and loud whistles. A throng of vendors sold protest paraphernalia, hawking whistles, masks and Guatemalan flags for about US$5 (S$7).

The difference on Thursday was that the noise was characterised by celebration, not the frustration and outrage that fuelled it for months.

Perez Molina was sent to Matamoros prison, which is on a military base in central Guatemala City. His vice-president, Mr Alejandro Maldonado, was sworn in as president on Thursday afternoon, after Congress voted to accept the resignation. Mr Maldonado demanded the resignations of top government officials, though many had already stepped down.

His term will end in January, with the inauguration of the winner of elections that were scheduled to begin tomorrow.

The political convulsions in Guatemala are part of a broader movement across Latin America, with discontent expressed through widespread protests in Brazil, Chile, Peru, Ecuador and elsewhere.

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 05, 2015, with the headline 'Protesters celebrate as ex-leader sent to jail'. Print Edition | Subscribe