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Published: Thursday March 20, 2014 MYT 9:25:02 AM
Updated: Thursday March 20, 2014 MYT 9:26:22 AM

Guatemalan president says diplomatic bribes a thing of the past

GUATEMALA CITY (Reuters) - Guatemalan President Otto Perez said on Wednesday the era of diplomatic bribery was over, a day after one of his predecessors admitted to taking $2.5 million from Taiwan in return for continuing to recognise the country against the wishes of China.

Former President Alfonso Portillo on Tuesday pleaded guilty in a federal court in New York to a charge of money laundering conspiracy, nearly a year after he was extradited from his home country to face a U.S. indictment unveiled in 2010.

Portillo, 62, who served as president of Guatemala from 2000 to 2004, was extradited to the United States in May 2013 after a years-long fight in Guatemala's courts, which had cleared the former president on embezzlement charges.

U.S. prosecutors had accused Portillo of laundering tens of millions of dollars that they said he embezzled from the Guatemalan government, including $2.5 million from Taiwan's embassy in Guatemala - a sum Portillo admitted was illicit.

Perez on Wednesday sought to distance his administration from such practices, acknowledging that they were once "an open secret," but insisting they were a thing of the past.

"These bad practices have been overcome. Those bad practices that happened 14 years ago are out of context now," he said.

He also said that all of Taiwanese aid to Guatemala is now transparent and publicly divulged.

China says Taiwan has no right to diplomatic recognition as it is part of China. The two have been governed separately since the Communists won China's civil war in 1949. The Nationalists fled across a 110-mile-wide (180-km) strait to Taiwan.

Only 22 countries maintain diplomatic relations with Taiwan, including the tiny Pacific island states of Nauru and Palau, as well as Vatican City, Paraguay, Panama, Haiti, Nicaragua and Belize. In November, Gambia said it would cut diplomatic ties with Taiwan.

(Writing by Gabriel Stargardter; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

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