Guatemalan president faces judgment day in Congress

Guatemala City (AFP) - Guatemala's Congress convened Tuesday to debate whether to strip embattled President Otto Perez of his immunity and force him to face prosecution over massive corruption that has sparked unprecedented protests.

Protesters demanding the conservative leader's ouster formed a cordon outside Congress to protect lawmakers as they arrived, after a separate group of demonstrators initially blocked the building's entrances.

A congressional investigative committee recommended three days ago that lawmakers vote to revoke Perez's immunity, which would trigger a criminal trial and possibly force him from office.

The motion needs 105 votes to pass in the 158-member legislature.

If it passes, it will be the first time a president has been stripped of his immunity in the Central American country.

Perez survived a similar vote last month -- but that was before prosecutors had accused him of personally masterminding a scheme that defrauded the national customs service of millions of dollars.

Prosecutors and investigators from a special UN anti-graft commission say Perez ran a system in which businesses paid bribes to clear their imports through customs at a fraction of the actual tax rate.

Perez, a 64-year-old retired general, has repeatedly denied the allegations and rejected calls from an 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 reelection. His term ends on January 14.

The leading candidate to replace him, Manuel Baldizon, has called for Congress to strip Perez's immunity.

Baldizon leads right-wing party Renewed Democratic Liberty, the largest in Congress.

Perez's lawyers have however challenged the congressional vote before the Constitutional Court, which is expected to rule by Thursday and could suspend a decision on stripping his immunity.

- Protests outside Congress -

Guatemalans have taken to the streets in protest every week since April, when investigators first accused a top aide to then-vice president Roxana Baldetti of involvement in the corruption.

On Tuesday dozens of trade unionists blocked the entrances to Congress ahead of the immunity vote, calling for expanded social spending.

But another group of protesters insisted on letting lawmakers through for the vote, forming a double line to shield them as they arrived.

Indigenous Guatemalans and farmworkers also planned to join the protest by blocking roads around the country.

Some of the protesters are calling for Sunday's elections to be postponed until sweeping political reforms can be implemented in Guatemala, a country of 15.8 million that is troubled by poverty, drug trafficking and violent crime.

Investigators say their accusations are based on some 89,000 wire-tapped phone calls that uncovered a scheme called "La Linea" (the line), named for a hotline businesses would call to access corrupt officials and get illegal discounts on their customs duties.

Baldetti, who resigned as vice president in May, was arrested on August 21 and is in jail awaiting trial over her alleged role in the scheme.

The probe has also nabbed the head of Guatemala's tax administration, his predecessor and several dozen other agency officials.