Guatemala president retains immunity from prosecution in graft probe

By Sofia Menchu GUATEMALA CITY (Reuters) - Guatemala's Congress on Monday voted overwhelmingly to preserve President Jimmy Morales' immunity from prosecution after the attorney general submitted a request to investigate him over suspected financing irregularities during his 2015 election campaign. The vote to protect Morales from possible prosecution was lopsided, with only 25 of the 158 members of Congress voting to strip Morales' of his legal protections. Presidential immunity can only be lifted with the backing of at least two-thirds of the chamber, or 105 members. Backers of Morales argued their vote to stop the probe from advancing favored political stability in the Central American nation. "Democracy isn't built by changing the president every two years," said Congressman Raul Romero, head of the Fuerza party, referring to the corruption cases that led to the 2015 resignation of Morales' predecessor, Otto Perez Molina. The vote in Congress was a blow to the U.N.-backed International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), which was pushing to determine the origin of some $800,000 in funds Morales managed as secretary general of the conservative National Convergence Front (FCN) party he led from 2015 to 2016. It was widely believed that those in favor of stripping Morales of his impunity would struggle to win enough support in Congress to green light an eventual prosecution as CICIG is also investigating all the major parties in Guatemala over suspected illegal financing. "Members of Congress are making a pact of corrupt officials now that they are afraid of being investigated themselves for illegal electoral financing," said Alvaro Montenegro, head of the anti-corruption organization Justicia Ya. Morales, who has denied any wrongdoing, issued a statement late on Monday praising the vote as a sign of the country's unity and "democratic maturity" of its institutions. "I call for an end to the political and ideological confrontations and together we'll continue to build the Guatemala we all desire," the statement said. The congressional vote reversed the recommendation of a Guatemalan congressional committee on Sunday that Morales' immunity be revoked. Last month, Guatemala's attorney general and CICIG jointly sought to investigate Morales, a former comedian, over the illegal financing allegation. Two days later, Morales declared the head of the U.N. body "persona non grata." Under the leadership of Ivan Velasquez, a veteran Colombian prosecutor, CICIG has caused problems for Morales, first investigating his son and brother, and then training its sights on him. The Guatemalan president won office in 2015 running on a platform of honest governance after Perez Molina was forced to resign and imprisoned in a multi-million dollar graft case stemming from a CICIG investigation. (Reporting by Sofia Menchu; Editing by Nick Macfie and Mary Milliken)