Guatemala govt bars anti-graft chief, defying court ruling

Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales, second from left, waves to photographers as he is surrounded by security guards before the inaugurating a soccer field in Mixco, Guatemala, Monday, Sept. 17, 2018. Morales' government will defy a ruling by the country's top court and block the return of Ivan Velasquez, who is leading a U.N.-backed anti-corruption commission. (AP Photo/Moises Castillo)

GUATEMALA CITY (AP) — The government on Monday defied a ruling by Guatemala’s top court to allow the return of the man who heads a U.N.-backed anti-corruption commission, with officials arguing they have the right to force his replacement.

The announcement came after the Constitutional Court issued a unanimous and un-appealable ruling late Sunday that the administration must permit entry by the leader of the commission, which has pursued a number of high-profile graft probes, including one pending against President Jimmy Morales himself.

Government officials said the ruling does not mention commission head Ivan Velasquez by name, and simply refers to the “commissioner (of either gender)” of the U.N. anti-corruption body, known as CICIG. They said that means they only have to allow someone in to head the commission but not Velasquez.

However, Gloria Porras, one of the court’s five justices, told The Associated Press late Sunday that the ruling applies to Velasquez.

“Ivan Velasquez is the current commissioner and as such can enter the country immediately,” Porras said.

Constitutional lawyer Oswaldo Samayoa read the decision that way. “It’s very clear that the commissioner has to enter. Whether it says Ivan Velasquez or not, it doesn’t matter, the decision is clear that they are allowing him to enter,” he said.

Samayoa said the ruling says the agreement between Guatemala and the U.N. is valid and with it the entire structure of the commission, including Velasquez as its head.

Another lawyer, Mario Fuentes, saw the decision as less clear cut. “You can make all kinds of interpretations. It must be clarified,” he said.

Later Monday, several human rights organizations filed complaints with prosecutors alleging the government was violating the court’s decision.

Chief prosecutor Maria Consuelo Porras said at a news conference that her office would wait for the Constitutional Court to order that action be taken against someone violating its decision.

Morales announced in late August that he was ending the commission’s mandate. He said he would allow the body a year to wrap up its work, but he wants Velasquez replaced immediately. He called Velasquez “a person who attacks order and public security in the country.”

At a news conference Monday, Interior Minister Enrique Degenhart was categorical, saying that “Colombian citizen Ivan Velasquez will not enter the country.”

Foreign Minister Sandra Jovel said she had sent a diplomatic letter to the United Nations asking that it send a list of proposed replacements within 48 hours. She said Guatemala’s government will have to sign off on whoever replaces Velasquez

The United Nations has supported Velasquez, who has worked remotely from abroad. The U.N. defended CICIG and its commissioner, saying the body has played “a pivotal role in the fight against impunity in Guatemala

Morales said earlier this month that he was “not obligated to obey illegal rulings,” which observers interpreted as a clear allusion to the court’s previous checks on his actions seeking to rein in the commission.

Last year, Morales declared Velasquez persona non grata and tried to have him expelled from Guatemala, but the Constitutional Court blocked that move.

The commission’s corruption probes have helped put former presidents and other officials behind bars. The body and Guatemalan prosecutors recently asked for a third time that Morales be stripped of his immunity so he could be investigated for alleged campaign finance violations. A legislative vote would be required to do that.

Morales denies wrongdoing, but critics have seen his effort to wind down CICIG and bar Velasquez as a manoeuver to protect himself as well as relatives and associates also in the sights of investigators.

Among the investigations that the commission has brought was one that led to the resignation and jailing of former President Otto Perez Molina and his vice president. Others have ensnared dozens of politicians, public officials and businesspeople.

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