(New York) – Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales’s order to expel the head of a United Nations-supported anti-corruption commission is a grave threat to the rule of law in Guatemala and should be reversed.
On Sunday August 27, 2017, Morales ordered Ivan Velásquez, the head of the UN-backed International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), to be expelled from Guatemala. The move came two days after Velásquez and Guatemalan Attorney General Thelma Aldana announced they were investigating the president’s party for illegal campaign financing and filed a petition with the courts to lift the president’s immunity.
“Rather than submit to an independent investigation, President Morales has cast his lot with the powerful mafias who have come to fear justice since Velásquez showed up, and are desperate to see him gone,” said Daniel Wilkinson, Americas managing director at Human Rights Watch.
Hours after the president’s announcement, the Constitutional Court provisionally granted three appeals in favor of Velásquez and suspended the expulsion order pending final rulings by the court, which could take weeks.
In a televised statement, Morales claimed that Velásquez had exercised “illegitimate, illegal, and unconstitutional” pressure on the Guatemalan Congress by advocating in favor of the constitutional reforms currently under discussion. He also said that Velásquez had violated the right to the presumption of innocence by publicly announcing the cases that CICIG is investigating. However, such announcements have long been common practice, while the agreement between the Guatemalan government and the UN expressly authorizes CICIG to propose public policies and legal reforms.
Since Velásquez’s appointment as commissioner in 2013, Guatemala has made unprecedented progress in tackling corruption and the abuse of power by government officials. Most notably, in 2015, joint investigations by the commission and the Attorney General’s Office exposed multiple corruption schemes, implicating officials in all three branches of government, and prompting the resignation of the country’s then-president and vice president. The two are now in jail awaiting trial.
Morales took office in January 2016 and in April of that year, asked the UN to extend the commission’s mandate – which had been set to expire in 2017 – until September 2019. In September 2016, the commission and the Attorney General’s Office announced that they were investigating the president’s son José Manuel Morales and brother, Samuel Morales, for alleged fraud committed prior to his term. The two were arrested in January and are awaiting trial.
The president’s political party is under investigation for alleged illicit financing during the 2015 presidential campaign. Initial investigations revealed evidence that the party failed to report at least US$900,000 in campaign funds to the relevant authorities. At a news conference held on August 25, Aldana and Velásquez announced that they had presented a request to strip the immunity of President Morales – who was secretary-general of his political party during the campaign – in order to proceed with investigations.
The president’s decision has been strongly criticized within Guatemala. The national human rights commissioner, the solicitor general, and the national comptroller all issued statements expressing their disagreement with the president. Several senior administration officials resigned in protest, including the minister for public health and social assistance, the national commissioner for competitiveness, the country’s three deputy health ministers, and the vice-minister for foreign affairs. Aldana, who announced on August 22 that she would resign as attorney general if the president expelled Velásquez, expressed support for the commissioner and said she would remain in office for the time being after the Constitutional Court suspended the president’s order.
“The expulsion of Velásquez could have devastating consequences for Guatemala’s efforts to combat corruption and organized crime,” Wilkinson said. “Democratic leaders and institutions in Guatemala, as well as international allies and partners, should join forces in pressing President Morales to reverse this outrageous and dangerous order.”