GUATEMALA CITY (AP) — Lawmakers overwhelmingly passed a bill Thursday that dramatically reduces prison sentences for electoral financing crimes, acting as President Jimmy Morales is under suspicion of receiving illicit campaign funds.
The measure sailed through on a 93-18 vote on a day when many Guatemalans were focused on thousands of Honduran migrants passing through the country bound for the U.S.
The legislation lowers the penalty for unregistered political contributions and anonymous financing to one to five years in prison, down from four to 12. Offenders will also be eligible for a commutable sentence. Legal representatives of political parties will now be absolved of any responsibility.
Opposition lawmaker Sandra Moran, who voted against the measure, argued it would benefit Morales if charges are ever brought against him, as well as two other lawmakers implicated in possible illegal financing.
“The granting of commutable sentences should be studied by a judge, not decided by lawmakers,” Moran said. “With this reform all those implicated will benefit, one of them being President Morales.”
Manuel Conde, a congressman who supported the measure, said 12 years was too much for the magnitude of the offense and the bill makes sentences fairer.
“Congress is fulfilling its legislative work. … The political system, the rule of law and society have more clarity now,” Conde said.
Morales is suspected in a case involving more than $1 million in alleged illicit contributions to his National Convergence Front party during the 2015 presidential campaign.
The president, who at the time was secretary-general of the party, has denied wrongdoing.
Political scientist Renzo Rosal said congress acted while Guatemalans were distracted by the caravan of several thousand Honduran migrants traversing the country in recent days in hopes of making it to the United States, a daily story that has grabbed the media spotlight.
“While the migrants’ march continues, the lawmakers once again take advantage,” Rosal said. “Now electoral financing crime is practically a slap on the wrist. A terrible harbinger for the next elections.”
The Guatemalan prosecutors office and a U.N.-sponsored commission probing corruption in the country have sought three times to withdraw the immunity of office that Morales enjoys as sitting president. The latest attempt was rejected Tuesday by congress.
Morales has also taken aggressive steps to defang the commission. He recently declined to renew its mandate for another two-year period, meaning the body will cease operations next September.
Morales’ government has also refused to allow the commission’s chief back into the country, and earlier this week denied or revoked visas for about a dozen key staff members.
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