Ex-Guatemala president found not guilty of embezzling millions from government

May 10, 2011

A Guatemalan court on Monday found former president Alfonso Portillo two former ministers serving in his administration not guilty on charges that they embezzled $15 million in government funds.

Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz said Monday night that she will appeal the ruling.

The corruption case was brought by the Attorney General’s office and the Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, or Cicig, an investigative agency created by the United Nations.

The three-judge panel was divided in its ruling, with judges Patricia Veras and Coralia Contreras voting not guilty and court president Morelia Ríos voting guilty.

Striking a conciliatory tone, Portillo, who served as president of Guatemala from 2000 to 2004, said the case against him “failed” because he was a “victim of a shoddy job” by prosecutors.

The former president said judges did not find evidence of a “criminal structure” inside his administration, as prosecutors had alleged. He also denied embezzling government funds into private bank accounts.

“Cicig shouldn’t have gotten involved in this case. They got involved to justify their political work and [Cicig’s former head, Spanish Judge Carlos] Castresana got involved to become famous,” Portillo said.

In June 2010, just before resigning his post at the helm of Cicig, Castresana told EFE that the case against Portillo and his former ministers rested on the fact that the former president “formed part of a criminal structure” that set out to steal public funds.

Former Finance Ministers Manuel Maza and Defense Minister Eduardo Arévalo were also cleared of charges and were released from custody Tuesday. Portillo remains in preventive detention following the outcome of a pending U.S. Justice Department extradition request. U.S. prosecutors want Portillo extradited to New York on charges that he illegally laundered $70 million in stolen funds.

On April 30, a constitutional appeals chamber of the Supreme Court upheld the extradition order. But attorneys for Portillo said this week they would appeal that decision to the country’s highest legal authority, the Constitutional Court.

Upon hearing that charges had been dismissed, Portillo appeared euphoric, telling reporters he felt “happy and satisfied,” and that the ruling was issued “according to the law.”

Portillo is the first former Guatemalan president to stand trial for multiple corruption cases that occurred during his administration, when millions of dollars of government funds disappeared.

Judge Patricia Deras read the verdict late Monday night in front of a packed courtroom that included current Cicig head Francisco Dall’Anesse, a former Costa Rican prosecutor.

“We’ve won the case [on Monday] that was the first rung in the ladder. Now the second awaits, which is that they throw out the [U.S.] extradition request because there is no legal basis for it,” said Portillo’s attorney, Telésforo Guerra.

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