Guatemalan prosecutors request that President-elect Bernardo Arévalo be stripped of immunity

GUATEMALA CITY (AP) — Guatemala’s Attorney General’s office formally requested Friday that President-elect Bernardo Arévalo and others be stripped of their immunity so it can investigate them for allegedly encouraging the student occupation of the country’s only public university.

Cultural Heritage prosecutor Ángel Saúl Sánchez had announced on Thursday that he planned to make the request while federal agents executed search warrants and sought to arrest dozens of members of Arévalo’s Seed Movement party.

That announcement drew waves of criticism from within and outside Guatemala.

Sánchez formally requested that immunity be lifted for Arévalo, Vice President-elect Karin Herrera, three lawmakers and a deputy-elect from the Seed Movement. Stripping them of immunity allows prosecutors to pursue a formal investigation.

Among the crimes prosecutors plan to pursue against Arévalo and others in the new case are exploitation of cultural assets, influence peddling and illegal association.

In April 2022, students took over San Carlos University, Guatemala’s only public university, following what they considered the fraudulent election of the school’s new rector Walter Mazariegos. They said that during the vote by students, faculty and administrators, Mazariegos only allowed those who would vote for him to cast their ballots.

The U.S. State Department sanctioned Mazariegos for suffocating democratic processes and taking the position of rector after what it called a fraudulent process.

The students did not stand down until June of this year.

Earlier this year, when Arévalo allegedly posted words of encouragement and support to the protesting students on social media, he was not even in the conversation in the race for Guatemala's presidency.

Thursday’s announcement was condemned by the U.S. government, the United Nations secretary general, the Organization of American States and other international observers.

The Attorney General's office's request was made to Guatemala's judiciary, but it was unclear where it would be channeled. Typically the Supreme Court of Justice rules on requests to strip elected officials of immunity.

But Constitutional lawyer Alejandro Balsells said it is unclear in this case because there did not appear to be precedent in Guatemala for a president-elect.

“It is a singular situation, it hasn’t happened before. The law doesn’t say who would hear (the request),” Balsells said. “Additionally, since he is a (congressman) and president-elect, it remains to be seen whether he has a right to two hearings, because he has double immunity.”

It was only the latest legal salvo against Arévalo, an anti-corruption crusader who shocked the nation by winning the presidential election in August. Observers say it is an attempt to keep Arévalo from taking power in January and thereby protect Guatemala’s corrupt political and economic elite.

Attorney General Consuelo Porras and outgoing President Alejandro Giammattei have denied political motivations.

Since Arévalo won a spot in the August runoff, prosecutors have been pursuing his party on accusations of wrongdoing in the gathering of the necessary signatures to register years earlier. A judge suspended the party at prosecutors’ request.