Crisis in Guatemala as leader turns on UN official

GUATEMALA CITY • Guatemala is facing a fresh political crisis after President Jimmy Morales tried to expel a UN official investigating him for suspected graft, but was overruled by the courts.

The row comes two years after a corruption affair that toppled the then President in the Central American country of 15 million people.

The power play by the television comedian-turned-leader sparked international criticism, from the United States and several European countries.

On Sunday, Mr Morales turned against UN anti-corruption official Ivan Velasquez, whose probe threatened to engulf the President in scandal.

Mr Morales said he ordered Mr Velasquez, a Colombian national, to be expelled "in the interests of the Guatemalan people, for the strengthening of the rule of law and our institutions", in an online video.

In another message, Mr Morales said the United Nations official "meddled in domestic affairs that are the sole responsibility of the Guatemalan state" and "he tried to pressure lawmakers to pass constitutional reforms".

But the Constitutional Court temporarily suspended Mr Morales' order, putting him on the spot as protests broke out against the President and in favour of Mr Velasquez.

Mr Velasquez is the head of the UN International Committee Against Impunity in Guatemala, which had helped prosecutors investigate the corruption scandal that toppled then President Otto Perez in 2015. Mr Morales won the subsequent elections.

Investigators say Mr Morales is suspected of failing to declare electoral campaign funds, and Mr Velasquez and Guatemalan prosecutors applied last Friday to strip the President of his immunity so he can be probed over the payments .

That same day, Mr Morales met UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and also fired his foreign minister Carlos Raul Morales who had been involved in the meeting with the UN chief but denied demanding Mr Velasquez's removal.

Health Minister Lucrecia Hernandez resigned over Mr Morales' move, accusing him of supporting "impunity". Her three vice-ministers plus competition commissioner Enrique Godoy also quit.

Mr Guterres' spokesman said the UN chief was "shocked" and "has repeatedly reiterated his full confidence in Commissioner Velasquez".

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 29, 2017, with the headline 'Crisis in Guatemala as leader turns on UN official'. Print Edition | Subscribe