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Judge OKs prosecution of former Guatemalan president on fraud charges

Judge OKs prosecution of former Guatemalan president on fraud charges
Former Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina, right, with lawyer Cesar Cano at a hearing in Guatemala City on Tuesday. (Esteban Biba / European Pressphoto Agency)

A judge ruled Tuesday that sufficient evidence exists against former Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina to proceed with prosecution charges in an alleged fraud scheme that has shaken the country since April.

Perez Molina will be prosecuted for conspiracy, customs fraud and bribe-taking for his connection with La Linea, a network of government officials who reportedly received payoffs from companies for reducing import taxes.

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Judge Miguel Angel Galvez made the decision after reviewing evidence brought forward in a joint investigation by the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala and the country's attorney general's office. Evidence presented included audiotapes and bank records.

The Public Ministry of Guatemala also asked the judge to keep Perez Molina behind bars to ensure he will remain in the country for the trial. He is being held in the Matamoros military prison.

This was the third hearing in the corruption case against Perez Molina. The retired military officer resigned as president Sept. 2, one day after Congress stripped him of his immunity and months after protests against his presidency began.

Guatemalan politics have been tumultuous and historic in recent weeks. Perez Molina is the first Guatemalan president to lose his immunity. In elections Sunday, a comedian won the top spot to advance to a second round of voting in October.

The scandal involving Perez Molina has stirred resentment among ordinary Guatemalans against the country's elites, who are perceived as maintaining a stranglehold over the government and economy.

"They have always done what they wanted. It's the custom that nothing happens to them," said Ruben Alvarado, a 50-year-old firefighter waiting for the bus outside the court where the judge ruled.

"Now we are surprised because justice is being carried out," he added.

Perez Molina told a courtroom last week that he is an honest person and did not steal from the Guatemalan people.

But many Guatemalans such as Alvarado believe he is guilty. Political scientist Susan Purcell says trials following momentous political events can result in a "kangaroo court" where law standards are disregarded because of political pressures.

"There is always the assumption that if a scandal involves government corruption, it goes straight to the top, but you have to be able to prove that," said Purcell, director of the Center for Hemispheric Policy at University of Miami. "I would hope that it's not a kangaroo court and that they actually have concrete evidence from reliable sources that it did go all the way to him."

Former Vice President Roxana Baldetti faces charges in the same case. Members of Perez Molina's Cabinet also have resigned in connection to the scandal or in protest of the charges against the former president.

Brigida is a special correspondent.

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