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Former Guatemala president appears in court after night in jail

Published 04/09/2015

Alejandro Maldonado during the impromptu presidential swearing-in ceremony in Guatemala City (AP)
Alejandro Maldonado during the impromptu presidential swearing-in ceremony in Guatemala City (AP)

Otto Perez Molina has appeared in court after spending his first night as an ex-president in military custody.

Perez Molina's jailing followed a historic day in which he resigned and Guatemala's Congress swore in vice president Alejandro Maldonado to serve the remainder of his term.

The judge hearing a corruption and fraud investigation against Perez Molina ordered the former president to be held in custody until the hearing reconvened in the morning.

"The first thing I want to deny, I don't belong to 'la linea,'" Perez Molina said, referring to the fraud scheme.

Prosecutors tried to show the judge that Perez Molina did know of the group's activities.

Perez Molina had left the court on Thursday under heavy police guard and was later seen entering a military barracks in the capital.

Perez Molina said that he had been uncomfortable overnight and slept little. "No jail is good," he said.

"I hope the judge gives me an alternative," Perez Molina said in reference to being granted bond or house arrest.

The court is considering allegations that Perez Molina was involved in a scheme in which businesspeople paid bribes to avoid import duties through Guatemala's customs agency. He is the first Guatemalan president to resign.

Perez Molina, 64, has steadfastly maintained his innocence and reiterated his willingness to face the investigation head-on.

"I have always said I will respect due process," he said. "I do not have the slightest intention of leaving the country."

Uncovered by prosecutors and a UN commission known as CICIG, which is investigating criminal networks in the country, the customs corruption scandal involved a scheme known as "La Linea," or "The Line." It is believed to have defrauded the state of millions of dollars.

"The structure under the 1 and 2 received 50%, and the 1 and 2 received the other 50%" of the bribes, prosecutor Jose Antonio Morales alleged. Prosecutors contend that in wiretap recordings, 1 was a reference to Perez Molina and former vice president Roxana Baldetti was 2.

Shortly after taking the oath of office on Thursday, Mr Maldonado demanded that ministers and top officials submit their resignations so he could form a transition government and promised an honest and inclusive administration.

Reaching out to protesters who took to the streets against the country's entrenched corruption, he vowed to leave "a legacy of honesty" and restore faith in Guatemala's democracy in his brief few months in office.

"You can't consider your work done," Mr Maldonado said in remarks aimed at all those demanding change. "In what is left of this year, there must be a positive response."

The unprecedented political drama was the climax of a week in which Perez Molina was stripped of his immunity from prosecution, deserted by key members of his Cabinet and saw his jailed former vice president ordered to stand trial - all just days before Sunday's election to choose his successor.

A growing protest movement brought together Guatemalans from all walks of life, from business leaders to Roman Catholic Church officials, to demand that Perez Molina step down as the fraud probe expanded to implicate more officials.

Baldetti's former personal secretary was named as the alleged ringleader and is a fugitive. Baldetti, who resigned on May 8 and is now jailed and facing charges, also maintains her innocence.

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