GUATEMALA CITY — Guatemala said it was withdrawing from a United Nations-backed anti-corruption commission and giving its prosecutors a day to leave the country, as President Jimmy Morales moved to expel a body that has investigated him, his family and top government officials.
Accusing the commission of overreach and violating Guatemala's sovereignty, Foreign Minister Sandra Jovel on Monday announced the decision after meeting with Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.
An hour later in Guatemala City, Morales held a news conference accompanied by his ministers in which he accused the U.N. and Guterres of being silent in the face of what he said were human rights abuses committed by the commission, known as CICIG for its Spanish initials.
"In spite of Guatemala's efforts with the United Nations, the silence, passivity and negativism of the secretary-general contributed to an uncertainty in the CICIG's actions that put at risk the country's sovereignty," Guatemala's president said.
Morales was accompanied by members of a Russian family who had been convicted of corruption for the use of false documents to open businesses and buy property in Guatemala, in a case in which the CICIG participated.
"Thank you, Mr. President, for your fight for sovereignty and human rights," said family member Irina Bitkova.
Guterres' spokesman Stephane Dujarric issued a statement saying the U.N. expects Guatemala to keep up its end of an agreement that created the commission, until its mandate ends in September.
Guterres "strongly rejects" Guatemala's complaints in withdrawing from the commission, Dujarric said, adding that the group has made an "important contribution ... to the fight against impunity in Guatemala."
Jovel accused the commission and its members of politicizing its work, violating Guatemala's sovereignty, failing to respect the presumption of innocence and causing "division in our society."
"The CICIG has exceeded its authority," she said. Jovel said the commission's staffers have 24 hours to leave the country, though a Guatemalan court has ruled that the country has to grant them visas.
U.S. Representative Norma Torres, a Democrat from California who was born in Guatemala, said Morales' presidency "has set the country back years, if not decades."
"When he took office in 2016, Morales had a historic opportunity to give Guatemalans the transparent and effective government that they deserve," she said in a statement. "Instead, when faced with the prospect of criminal investigation by CICIG and the public ministry, he chose to destroy the rule of law in order to protect himself."
During its 11 years operating in Guatemala, CICIG has pressed corruption cases that have implicated more than 600 people, including elected officials, businesspeople and bureaucrats. The commission said in November that it has won 310 convictions and broken up 60 criminal networks.
Morales has made no secret of his contempt for the group — formally, the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala — which has investigated the president's son and his brother, as well as Morales for possible campaign finance violations. They deny the accusations.
Lawmakers so far have rebuffed proposals to lift Morales' immunity from prosecution.
Morales said in August 2017 he was expelling CICIG's chief. Though a court quickly blocked that order, the commission head was later barred from re-entering the country after leaving for a business trip.
Last year, Morales refused to renew CICIG's mandate, effectively giving it until September 2019 to wind down operations and leave the country. He used his speech at this fall's annual U.N. General Assembly meeting of world leaders to inveigh against CICIG.
Most recently, a commission member was detained at an airport for almost a day and refused entry to the country after arriving Saturday. A court ordered his release.
Peltz contributed from the United Nations.