Guatemala’s congress has voted to strip embattled President Otto Perez’s immunity, clearing the way for him to be prosecuted over allegations he masterminded a massive corruption scheme.
The resolution was passed unanimously on Monday by the 132 politicians present, who had faced virulent demands from protesters to make the president face trial over the alleged multimillion-dollar fraud scheme at the national customs service.
After months of unprecedented protests that have swept Guatemala, hundreds of demonstrators outside congress erupted into jubilant cheers at the news, as passing drivers honked their horns in celebration.
The vote clears the way for prosecutors to charge Perez, a 64-year-old retired general, with running a scheme that allowed businesses to reduce their customs duty by paying bribes to corrupt officials.
Under Guatemalan law, he will be automatically removed from office if remanded in custody by a judge.
Perez’s lawyers filed a motion on Monday challenging the immunity vote before the Constitutional Court, which is expected to rule by Thursday.
The 132 votes in favour were well clear of the two-thirds majority needed for the motion to pass in the 158-member legislature.
A congressional investigative committee had recommended three days ago that politicians revoke Perez’s immunity.
He had survived a similar vote last month – but that was before prosecutors and investigators from a special UN anti-graft commission had accused him of personally pulling the strings of the bribery ring.
Perez has repeatedly denied the allegations and rejected calls from the increasingly virulent protest movement for his resignation.
“I have not received a cent from this fraudulent system,” he said Monday.
“I reiterate yet again my position on the allegations made by the prosecution, and it is that I am completely calm,” he told a press conference.
The scandal, which has already felled his former vice president and a string of top officials, comes as Guatemala prepares for elections Sunday to choose Perez’s successor.
Perez, who has been in power since 2012, is constitutionally barred from running for re-election. His term ends on January 14.
The leading candidate to replace him, Manuel Baldizon, had called for congress to strip his immunity.
Baldizon leads right-wing party Renewed Democratic Liberty, the largest in congress.