Guatemala Congress strips President Molina of immunity

Amid a widening corruption scandal, Guatemalan lawmakers voted Tuesday to rescind President Otta Perez Molina's immunity from prosecution, opening him up to criminal charges. 

Moises Castillo/AP Photo
Demonstrators react in jubilation in front of the Guatemalan Congress building the as they hear the news that Congress has voted to withdraw President Otto Perez Molina's immunity from prosecution, in Guatemala City, Tuesday, Sept. 1, 2015. Perez Molina's government has been beset by a series of corruption cases, but until now he has been immune to prosecution as president.

Guatemala's Congress voted to withdraw President Otto Perez Molina's immunity from prosecution Tuesday in connection with a widening customs corruption scandal that has rocked his administration and the country's political system.

With at least 105 of the 158 votes in Congress needed to approve the measure, 132 lawmakers backed the measure.

It does not remove Mr. Perez Molina, who denies any wrongdoing, from office, but instead means that prosecutors can file criminal charges against him just like any other citizen.

"The party gave us permission to vote and withdraw the president's immunity," said Luis Fernandez Chenal, a lawmaker with Perez Molina's ruling party. "He who owes nothing, fears nothing."

About 200 people outside the capitol cheered and set off firecrackers as news of the vote reached them.

"Excellent! It is a step forward for Guatemala," said Gerardo Corzo, a retiree.

The customs graft scandal has already claimed the job of Perez Molina's former Vice President Roxana Baldetti, who is in jail awaiting trial on accusations she accepted millions in bribes in return for letting others avoid import duties. A number of Cabinet officials have also left office.

Massive protests have demanded Perez Molina resign and a postponement of this coming Sunday's elections, but he has refused to do so.

"This decision demonstrates that the people and their collective actions can get results, but this is just the beginning," said activist Byron Garon. "Now we want him and his vice president to be tried and convicted, and for them to give back to Guatemala all that they stole."

Earlier in the day, civilians formed a wall of bodies to let lawmakers into Congress, protecting them from dozens of presidential loyalists who had blocked access to the capitol since the morning in a bid to delay the proceedings.

Interior Department Vice Minister Elmer Sosa also arrived with riot police to "guarantee the safety of protesters and Congress," and lawmakers were finally able to go inside and begin the session.

"It was impressive that the people themselves came and created a human chain and a path so we could enter," said opposition legislator Leonel Lira.

Government agents have had to step in on several occasions to keep backers and critics of the president away from each other.

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