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Guatemala's president-elect faces charges from prosecutors

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

In an interview with NPR this week, the president-elect of Guatemala, Bernardo Arevelo, warned of a modern type of coup happening in his country.

BERNARDO AREVALO: In the 21st century, all over the world, coups are being conducted by lawfare.

CHANG: Coups by lawfare, he says. Then today prosecutors in Guatemala said they intend to seek charges against him and the vice president-elect of the country for attending and tweeting about a protest. The U.S. called the moves, quote, "provocative attempts to interfere with the elections." Legal experts say it clears the way for throwing the president- and vice president-elect in prison. NPR's Eyder Peralta reports.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: This morning agents from the attorney general's office began raiding homes of activists and politicians connected to Guatemala's president-elect. Marcela Blanco ran for Congress for his party, and this morning police put her in handcuffs.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARCELA BLANCO: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: "It's because I spoke out against corruption," she said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BLANCO: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: "I'm not scared, but my family is."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BLANCO: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: "What is happening in Guatemala," she asked. Bernardo Arevalo was elected back in August. He led a group of idealistic young people who dreamed up an anticorruption political party at university. The ruling elite had pushed nearly every opposition candidate off the ballot using legal trickery, but they left Arevalo on the ballot because he was polling terribly. He surprised everyone. He won by 21 points. And since then, the attorney general in Guatemala has tried to stop him from taking office. They claimed electoral fraud. They raided his offices, suspended his party. And even after the elections had been certified, they ransacked the electoral commission. And this morning prosecutors called a press conference.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANGEL SAUL SANCHEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: A prosecutor, Angel Saul Sanchez, put up a picture of Arevalo, his vice president and some of their closest allies, and he showed a video of Vice President-elect Karin Herrera standing at a protest at a local university. He then showed screengrabs of the president-elect's tweet congratulating students for a protest against what they said was a corrupt rector.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SANCHEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: "These things lead us," he said, "to the legal conclusion that these people have participated in criminal acts." The prosecutors say they will now move to strip the president- and vice president-elect of their immunity.

EDGAR ORTIZ: This is absolutely bizarre.

PERALTA: That's constitutional scholar Edgar Ortiz.

ORTIZ: We are living in a world in which attorney general's office and some judges are living outside every reasonable margin of legality.

PERALTA: To Ortiz, this is a spurious case with a clear goal in mind.

ORTIZ: They are trying to strip Arevalo and the VP, Karin Herrera, from their immunity in order to put them in jail and prevent them to take office in January.

PERALTA: It is, Ortiz says, exactly what Arevalo has warned about - a coup d'etat by lawfare. Eyder Peralta, NPR News, Mexico City.

(SOUNDBITE OF OTTMAR LIEBERT'S "TANA'S BLUE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.