Guatemala taps controversial prosecutor to replace fired graft-fighter

FILE PHOTO: Juan Francisco Sandoval, who was removed by Guatemala's Attorney General as head of the Special Prosecutor's Office Against Impunity (FECI), arrives for a news conference in Guatemala City, Guatemala July 23, 2021. REUTERS/Luis Echeverria/File Photo

GUATEMALA CITY (Reuters) - A controversial prosecutor in Guatemala has been tapped to replace an internationally renowned graft-fighter who until recently led the country's anti-corruption unit, Guatemalan authorities said on Tuesday.

Rafael Curruchiche will take over as head of the Special Prosecutor's Office Against Impunity (FECI) after Juan Francisco Sandoval was removed from the unit last month by the attorney general, who accused him of undermining her work.

The firing drew condemnation from Washington and sparked protests calling for President Alejandro Giammattei and the attorney general to step down.

Sandoval, who fled to El Salvador after his dismissal, criticized the appointment of his successor, pointing to past accusations that he appeared to be protecting the corrupt.

"Who else than Rafael Curruchiche to represent the interests of the corrupt?" Sandoval said in a video posted to Twitter.

Sandoval has said his firing was related to his efforts to investigate corruption cases linked to Giammattei.

After the announcement of his appointment, Curruchiche told a Guatemala radio program that he was committed to ethical standards and would prioritize the fight against corruption and impunity.

"The work I'm going to carry out in the Special Prosecutor's Office Against Impunity will be correct, and that's what I'm going to ask all prosecutors, that they are correct, that they are objective and impartial," he said in excerpts from the interview published on the Twitter account of the Attorney General's office.

The Attorney General's office said in a statement that Curruchiche was appointed to "ensure continuity" in its work.

The FECI was originally created to tackle investigations spearheaded by the U.N.-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), which was ousted from the country in 2019.

Curruchiche was a prosecutor in the Electoral Crimes unit and was in charge of investigations against former President Jimmy Morales, but did not issue an arrest order for the leader despite accusations against him.

In June, Curruchiche's Electoral Crimes Prosecutor's Office accused former tax chief Juan Solorzano of falsifying documents to form a new political party, and implicated attorney Anibal Arguello, who had worked with CICIG, in relation to the case.

Solorzano and Arguello said the charges were politically motivated because Solorzano had uncovered a corruption network that had been defrauding the state by helping business leaders avoid paying taxes.

Curruchiche in the past has said his office acted with impartiality and objectivity, and has rejected allegations that he arrested Solorzano and Arguello in an effort to protect the corrupt.

(Reporting by Sofia Menchu; Writing by Daina Beth Solomon; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

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