Guatemalan lawmakers reduce punishment for campaign crimes

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Guatemala's Congress approved legislation reducing the punishment for campaign-finance crimes Wednesday, two days after blocking prosecutors and a U.N. anti-corruption commission from investigating President Jimmy Morales for alleged irregularities during the election that brought him to office.

Lawmakers voted to reduce the maximum sentence from 12 to 10 years and to permit the decade in prison to be commuted with a fine.

Critics called the changes an attempt to protect the president and his allies.

"The politicians are protecting themselves and are not measuring the consequences," said lawyer and columnist Carlos Ovalle.

Adding to the controversy, the vote came after lawmakers decided it was a matter of "national urgency," postponing votes on school meals and other issues.

The U.S. Embassy weighed in to criticize the measure, posting on its Twitter account a note in Spanish that said: "According to the Congress of Guatemala. Schools = Not a national urgency? Highways = Not a national urgency? Hospitals = Not a national urgency? Reforming the crime of illicit electoral financing = National urgency?"

On Monday, lawmakers voted against lifting Morales' immunity from prosecution, acting just hours after a congressional commission had recommended that the protection be withdrawn to open the way for a possible trial on the campaign-finance accusations.

Morales has been targeted by investigators amid allegations that about $825,000 in financing for his 2015 campaign was hidden and that other expenditures had no explainable source of funding.

The president has denied any wrongdoing. He issued a statement Monday saying the congressional decision "demonstrates the democratic maturity" of Guatemala's institutions.

The investigation was conducted by Guatemalan prosecutors as well as by Ivan Velasquez, the head of the U.N. anti-corruption commission that has been working in the Central American nation for a decade.

Last month, Velasquez and Guatemala's chief prosecutor asked for the immunity attached to the presidency to be lifted in connection with the probe.

Two days later Morales sought to expel Vazquez from the country, but that order was swiftly overturned by the Constitutional Court.