Guatemala court suspends bill replacing sentences with fines

Paper dolls representing lawmakers are burned by anti-government demonstrators in front of the Guatemalan Congress in Guatemala City, Thursday, Sept. 14, 2017. Several protests emerged against Guatemala's Congress after it 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. (AP Photo/Moises Castillo)

GUATEMALA CITY - Guatemala's constitutional Court on Thursday provisionally blocked legislation approved by congress that reduced punishments for illegal campaign financing and opened the possibility of replacing prison sentences of 10 years with fines.

Guatemala's human rights prosecutor Jordan Rodas had asked the court to block the legislation, calling it a danger to the public.

When they passed the bill on Wednesday, legislators apparently meant just to reduce punishments for illegal campaign financing. The legislation cut the maximum sentence for the charge from 12 to 10 years, and stipulated that those convicted could pay a fine instead of serving time.

The decision caused outrage because it came as President Jimmy Morales faced accusations of illegal campaign financing during the 2016 election that brought him to power. Critics called it a step toward impunity and protests erupted in the capital and later spread to other cities.

But concerns grew even further when prosecutors said it left open the possibility that people convicted of crimes like extortion, robbery or manslaughter might also be able to pay fines instead of doing time.

On Thursday, constitutional Court President Francisco de Mata Vela said the body had granted a "ruling that suspends the approval of reforms" because they could "cause irreparable damages to the justice system."

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