GUATEMALA CITY – Guatemala’s Congress decided on Thursday to scrap two controversial changes to the penal code that it had approved the day before, one of which shielded party leaders and candidates from prosecution for violations of campaign-finance laws.
Leaders of the different blocs in Congress agreed at an emergency meeting on Thursday to kill the changes, opposition lawmaker Oliverio Garcia said at a press conference, where he was joined by the president of the unicameral legislature, Oscar Chinchilla.
Chinchilla said for his part that the changes would be overturned in a legislative session on Friday.
Guatemalan Human Rights Ombudsman Jordan Rodas, who had filed a challenge at the Constitutional Court, and Guatemala’s business community blasted the surprise congressional move, while President Jimmy Morales said Thursday he would consider vetoing the legislation.
Under the changes Congress made Wednesday to Article 407 of the Criminal Code, parties’ secretary-generals and candidates would not have been allowed to be held criminally responsible for campaign-financing violations.
Instead, the legislation – which passed by a vote of 107-16 – said it was up to party accountants to ensure there were no irregularities.
The lawmakers also modified another section of the criminal code to make prison sentences of up to 10 years for certain crimes – compared to five previously – susceptible to being commuted, with the felons able to go free after paying a fine.
But the lawmakers reversed course amid the intense criticism.
The Coordinating Committee of Agricultural, Commercial, Industrial and Financial Associations (CACIF), a powerful business federation, had slammed the penal-code changes and called on Morales (a former secretary-general of the right-wing National Convergence Front party who became its presidential candidate in 2015) to veto them.
On Monday, Congress shielded Morales from prosecution for alleged illegal financing during his successful 2015 election campaign, a vote that came after a legislative committee had recommended that his immunity be stripped.
Guatemalan prosecutors and the United Nations-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) had leveled the accusations against Morales, who rose to power on an anti-corruption platform.