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Guatemala's president quits over graft scandal

guatemalaBy Alexandra AlperGUATEMALA CITY, Sept 3 (Reuters) - Guatemalan President Otto Perez has resigned, his spokesman said on Thursday, hours before he is due to appear in court over a corruption scandal that has gutted his government and plunged the country into chaos days before a national election.Thousands of protesters flooded the streets of the capital, Guatemala City, and other cities in recent weeks calling for Perez, a 64-year-old retired general, to quit over allegations of involvement in a customs racket.His letter of resignation was signed late on Wednesday and sent to the country's Congress, which was expected to hold an emergency session early on Thursday to hand power to Vice President Alejandro Maldonado, presidential spokesman Jorge Ortega said.Perez, who was elected on a ticket to combat crime and corruption, was not constitutionally eligible to run for re-election in Sunday's presidential vote.He has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing and said he would not resign.But his options narrowed on Wednesday when a judge issued a detention order against him after lawmakers voted to strip him of immunity from prosecution."It is a personal decision to maintain institutions and to face the case brought against him," Ortega said.Prosecutors said the charges to be brought against Perez were illicit association, taking bribes and customs fraud.Attorney General Thelma Aldana said on Wednesday that Perez was also being investigated for money laundering, which could lead to the freezing of his assets.Perez, who had been deemed a flight risk, will present himself at court at 8 a.m. on Thursday (1400 GMT), his lawyer said.Prosecutors allege Perez was involved in a customs scam dubbed "La Linea", or the line, after a phone hotline used by importers to avoid paying customs duties in exchange for bribes.His conservative administration spent much of this year mired in public protests and scandals over corruption allegations against senior officials, several of whom he fired during a cabinet purge in May.Former vice president Roxana Baldetti resigned after she was linked to "La Linea." She denied any wrongdoing but was arrested on the same charges Perez now faces.More than 20 other people have been arrested over the scam, though how much money was involved is still unclear.Prosecutors and a powerful U.N.-backed anti-corruption body known as the CICIG moved against Perez following months of investigations, and findings taken from some 89,000 telephone taps, almost 6,000 emails and 17 raids.The anti-corruption investigations have also hit the center-right opposition Lider party, whose election candidate Manuel Baldizon is leading opinion polls.No candidate is expected to win more than 50 percent of the vote on Sunday, triggering a second round run-off on Oct. 25. The next president will then formally take the helm in January.(With reporting by Sofia Menchu and Enrique Andres Pretel; Writing by Christine Murray; Editing by Simon Gardner and John Stonestreet)

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