The Congress of Guatemala [official website] approved legislation that decreases the penalties for campaign finance crimes on Wednesday by a vote of 105-19. The reform reduces [Reuters report] the maximum sentence for illegally funding an election from 12 to 10 years, as sentence which can be commuted to a fine. Additionally, the law shifts the responsibility of financial irregularities from party leaders to accountants. Lawmakers called the vote a matter of “national urgency” and pushed it ahead of other issues that were scheduled to be decided upon. Critics of the changes see them as another attempt by Congress to protect President Jimmy Morales. Prosecutors sought to remove immunity from Morales in order to investigate the misappropriation of over $800,000 in election funds but were prevented from doing so by Congress [JURIST reports] earlier this week.
Last week the Guatemala Supreme Court [official website, in Spanish] ruled that legislators must review a request to lift Morales’s immunity from prosecution, after finding that that there was sufficient evidence [JURIST report] to transfer the case to Congress. It was after this ruling that the five-member commission was formed to review the case and vote on the matter. Prior to that ruling, in late August, the Guatemala Constitutional Court [official website, in Spanish] issued [JURIST report] an order blocking the expulsion of Ivan Velasquez, the head of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) [official website], within hours of the expulsion. Morales claimed that Velasquez misused his authoritative position by pressuring the legislative process and publicly accusing Guatemalans of violations without respecting their due process rights. However, according to a spokesperson for the US State Department [press release], Velasquez has acted as the lead in efforts to combat corruption and impunity in Guatemala for a decade. Soon after the expulsion order, US, Germany, Canada, Spain, France, UK, Sweden, Switzerland and the EU issued a joint statement condemning Morales’s actions. Citizens, in protest of Morales, declared a state of siege in the capital, and some ministers resigned. Since the action to lift Morales’s presidential immunity failed to attain the required two-thirds or 105 votes [Al Jazeera report], it is now considered suspended and can be reconsidered in a subsequent session of Congress.