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THE WORLD

Nicaragua Assembly Divided Over Probe

September 20, 2002|T. CHRISTIAN MILLER and ARACELY ACOSTA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

MANAGUA, Nicaragua — Nicaragua seemed on the verge of political crisis late Thursday as a deeply divided National Assembly battled over whether to pursue corruption charges against former President Arnoldo Aleman.

A slim majority voted Thursday to expel Aleman from his position as head of the 93-member assembly, a move that would allow prosecutors to pursue charges that Aleman and allies stole nearly $100 million during his presidency from 1997 to 2002.

But the vote was immediately declared invalid on procedural grounds by Aleman and the 44 deputies loyal to him, signaling a possible constitutional clash between the two factions.

The vote "is absolutely null," Aleman said. "What these congressional deputies are doing is committing a crime against the chamber."

As a member of the assembly, Aleman enjoys legislative immunity from criminal prosecution. And in his position as president of the assembly, he has bottled up efforts to strip him of that immunity.

Late Wednesday, Aleman relented to growing political pressure and appointed a committee to study the charges against him. But he packed it full of supporters, leading to calls from the opposition for a protest march that drew thousands into Managua's streets Thursday.

Opposition members, most of them members of the Sandinista party that ruled Nicaragua as a socialist state during the 1980s, arrived en masse early Thursday morning for a vote in the assembly building in downtown Managua.

Forty-seven deputies then voted to remove Aleman from his position and appointed a new leadership committee to oversee the process to strip his immunity. There was one abstention. The 44 deputies loyal to Aleman did not show up.

The new committee contains three Sandinistas and four supporters of current President Enrique Bolanos, Aleman's former vice president.

Bolanos, who has waged a tireless battle to oust Aleman since taking office, said from Florida that he supported the new congressional commission. He also urged calm in the face of rumors of violence between the Sandinistas and Aleman supporters.

"This is a first step, an important step," said Bolanos, who was in Miami for a conference. "What happened in the assembly today is a historic milestone."

In another development, Aleman's daughter left the country Thursday to visit her husband in Costa Rica. Maria Dolores Aleman Cardenal, who has been implicated in the scandal, enjoys legislative immunity since she also is a member of the assembly.

Aleman denied that his daughter was fleeing the country. Several of those charged in the corruption case have already fled the country. They include Aleman's brother Alvaro; Alvaro's wife, Mayra Estrada; and their son Arnoldo Aleman Estrada.

Aleman's personal secretary, Alfredo Fernandez; the former head of the country's largest telecommunications company, Jorge Solis Faria; and ex-Finance Minister Esteban Duque Estrada also have left the country.

Aleman's sister Amelia is hospitalized under police custody. His former tax chief, Byron Jerez, is in jail. Jerez's wife, Ethel, and his daughter Valeria have also been implicated in the scandal but have fled.

All have been ordered to stand trial on charges tied to the diversion of nearly $100 million in state funds to banks in Panama. The money was then allegedly passed to a foundation controlled by the former president.

Aleman angrily declared his innocence, portraying himself as the victim of political persecution.

"The Aleman family has never committed a crime," said Aleman, who remained holed up at his estate outside of Managua on Thursday. "Our only crime has been to maintain our leadership positions."

Times staff writer Miller reported from San Jose, Costa Rica, and special correspondent Acosta from Managua.

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