Opposition lawmakers in Chile have launched impeachment proceedings against President Sebastian Pinera over the controversial sale of a mining company through a firm owned by his children, after new details emerged in the Pandora Papers leaks.
Pinera used “his office for personal business”, Congressman Tomas Hirsch said on Wednesday as he presented the accusation in the lower house of Congress, the first step in an impeachment process that could last for several weeks.
The move comes after Chile’s public prosecutor said this month it would open an investigation into possible bribery-related corruption charges, as well as tax violations related to the 2010 sale of the Dominga mine, which took place during Pinera’s first term in office.
The probe was prompted by the Pandora Papers leaks, a vast trove of reports on the hidden wealth of world leaders researched by the International Consortium of Journalists (ICIJ).
The Pandora Papers linked Pinera to the sale of Dominga, a sprawling copper and iron project, through a company owned by his children, to businessman Carlos Delano – a close friend of the president – for $152m.
It said a large part of the operation was carried out in the British Virgin Islands.
In addition, it said a controversial clause was included that made the last payment of the business conditional on “not establishing an area of environmental protection in the area of operations of the mining company, as demanded by environmental groups”. That decision falls within the remit of the Chilean president.
Pinera, one of the richest people in Chile, has denied any wrongdoing, saying the sale had previously been examined and dismissed by courts in 2017. “As president of Chile, I have never, never carried out any action nor management related to Dominga Mining,” he said last week.
But another opposition Chilean legislator, Jaime Naranjo, one of the drivers of the impeachment proceeding, said Pinera had “openly infringed the Constitution … seriously compromising the honour of the nation”.
Now Chile’s Chamber of Deputies, controlled by the opposition, will have to decide whether to approve or reject the indictment. A vote that will take place the first week of November, congressional sources explained to the AFP news agency.
If it receives the go-ahead, the case would pass to the Senate, which would have to act as a jury to seal Pinera’s fate.
The controversy came in advance of presidential and legislative elections in November.
Pinera’s second term, which began in March 2018, is set to end next March. He will be leaving office deeply unpopular after his right-wing coalition suffered a shock defeat in an election in May for a constituent assembly tasked with re-writing the country’s constitution.
The impeachment push came a day after Pinera declared a state of emergency in two southern regions of Chile where a conflict with Indigenous Mapuche people – who are demanding the restoration of their ancestral lands and more autonomy – is intensifying.
“We have decided to call a state of exception” in four provinces of the southern regions of Biobio and Araucania, as well as deploy troops to help control “the serious disturbance of public order” there, the president said in a speech on Tuesday.
Al Jazeera’s Lucia Newman, reporting from Santiago, said armed Mapuche groups “have become more and more bold” and have been “carrying out acts of arson, sabotage, [and] taking over land”.
“The president has been under tremendous pressure for months now from conservatives within his own party, and other groups including truck drivers, to call a stage of siege in the Araucania, but he has been reluctant to do so until now,” Newman said.