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Peru’s president faces impeachment vote amid lethal coronavirus outbreak

A man sells newspapers bearing headlines on a corruption scandal involving President Martín Vizcarra in Lima. (Rodrigo Abd/AP)

LIMA, Peru — President Martín Vizcarra faces a fast-track impeachment vote Friday in what critics have described as an attempted coup d'etat, while Peru struggles with one of the world's deadliest outbreaks of the coronavirus.

Lawmakers moved to censure Vizcarra after recordings emerged last week in which he coordinated his government’s response to an influence-peddling scandal. His opponents claim the tapes indicate he ordered a visitors log to the presidential palace to be falsified to distance himself from a singer, known as Richard Swing, who received contracts, including as a motivational speaker, from Vizcarra’s administration.

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If two-thirds of the 130-member Congress approve the impeachment motion, the popular anticorruption centrist will be immediately removed from office.

But the push to oust him is being criticized by constitutional experts and democracy activists, who see a rush to judgment, violating due process on vague charges.

“The situation with the pandemic is really serious right now,” said Samuel Rotta, who heads the Peruvian branch of the anti-corruption group Transparency International. “The last thing Peruvians need is this slap in the face.”

Vizcarra remains popular. Despite complaints that he has mishandled the country’s coronavirus outbreak, recent polls show he retains the support of a majority of Peruvians.

Peru has reported more than 738,020 coronavirus cases, the fifth most in the world. Its cumulative death rate of 95 per 100,000 people is the worst of any nation.

Peru took early, aggressive measures against the coronavirus. It’s still suffering one of Latin America’s largest outbreaks.

Rotta said the recordings are ambiguous. “The president owes us an explanation,” he said. “But these recordings are a matter for prosecutors to look at once he is no longer in office.”

On Thursday, Peru’s constitutional court agreed to hear the government’s appeal against the impeachment. But it rejected a request that it do so before the vote Friday. That means that even if the court, which typically takes a month or two to hear a case, does rule for the president, it could be weeks after he has already been sacked and the country has moved on.

Critics have questioned the lawmakers’ motives seven months ahead of general elections. Diego García-Sayán, a former justice minister and former president of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, described them as “wannabe coup-mongers.”

The government says several members of Congress have requested that the elections be pushed back by two years as the country grapples with the coronavirus.

The head of the congressional oversight committee, Edgar Alarcón, who released the tapes, represents the small extremist Union for Peru party, led by Antauro Humala, the jailed brother of former president Ollanta Humala, and could be facing prosecution himself when his parliamentary immunity expires in July.

The corruption scandal that’s ensnared not one, but three Peruvian presidents

Alarcón resigned as comptroller general in 2017 amid claims of corruption, including falsifying his accounting degree, nepotism and profiting from his official position.

Prosecutors have charged him with crimes including embezzlement and “illicit enrichment”; they’re asking he be sentenced to 17 years in prison. Were it not for his parliamentary immunity, Alarcón might already be in pretrial detention.

Antauro Humala, meanwhile, is serving a 25-year sentence for leading a military uprising against the elected government of President Alejandro Toledo in 2005. He has called for corrupt officials to be summarily shot. His party has repeatedly pushed for his liberation.

The tapes also capture Vizcarra’s secretary, Karem Roca, talking with other members of the president’s team. In some, Roca claims that Vizcarra directed anticorruption prosecutors, including chief prosecutor Zoraida Ávalos, to target his political opponents.

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García-Sayán, who now serves as the U.N. special rapporteur on judicial independence, dismissed those claims as “uninformed rumors.” “There is nothing inappropriate about the president meeting the chief prosecutor,” he said. “What is clear is that the president’s team is made up of people with mean motives, and he did not choose them well.”

The speaker of Congress, Manuel Merino, accepted the impeachment motion within 48 hours of the recordings’ publication, without any debate in the oversight committee or investigation to ascertain their authenticity.

Because Peru currently has no vice president — Vizcarra stepped up from the role to become president in 2017 — Merino is next in line to lead the country.

Peru’s president dissolved Congress. Then Congress suspended the president.

The speaker apologized after it emerged over the weekend that he had contacted the heads of the armed forces before the impeachment motion was even drafted. The officers reported the contact to the defense minister. Some here are describing Merino’s conduct as “sedition.”

The government has appealed to the constitutional court to suspend the impeachment vote and clarify the meaning of “moral incapacity,” the accusation leveled against Vizcarra. The term has appeared in Peruvian constitutions since 1834 but has never been clearly defined. Constitutional experts say it was originally intended to cover physical and mental infirmity, not misconduct.

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Peru’s current cohort of lawmakers was elected in January to complete the five-year congressional period after Vizcarra used an extreme constitutional mechanism to dissolve the previous parliament for resisting his anticorruption agenda. Many had hoped the special election would usher in a new dawn of badly needed political and judicial reforms.

But lawmakers have repeatedly delayed debating many of the president’s proposals while passing populist economic measures that critics warn undermine basic principles, including property rights and legal certainty.

Peru’s four previous presidents were implicated in Latin America’s extensive Odebrecht scandal.

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Coronavirus: What you need to know

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot. New federal data shows adults who received the updated shots cut their risk of being hospitalized with covid-19 by 50 percent. Here’s guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

New covid variant: The XBB.1.5 variant is a highly transmissible descendant of omicron that is now estimated to cause about half of new infections in the country. We answered some frequently asked questions about the bivalent booster shots.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people. Nearly nine out of 10 covid deaths are people over the age 65.

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