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Guatemala President Says He Could Veto Contested Graft Reforms

FILE - Guatemala's President Jimmy Morales speaks to the media after his arrival at Mariscal Sucre Airport in Quito, Ecuador, May 23, 2017, ahead of Ecuadorean presidential inauguration.

Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales said Thursday that he could veto controversial reforms passed by Congress that critics described as a serious setback in the country's fight against political corruption.

On Wednesday, Guatemala's Congress approved a "national emergency" decree to curb penalties for illegal election financing after Morales was linked to suspected irregularities during his 2015 election campaign.

The decree was the latest blow to the attorney general's office and the U.N.-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) after Congress this week voted to preserve Morales' immunity from prosecution.

"If it is determined that the [reforms] are harmful to the people of Guatemala and work against the interests of the nation, I will use my right to veto them," Morales said in a brief video posted to his official Facebook page.

Morales also urged Guatemalans to remain calm and peaceful amid a charged atmosphere.

Critical reaction

The reforms were widely criticized in Guatemala, with opposition from the press and various government institutions and the human rights office.

The U.S. ambassador to Guatemala, Todd Robinson, expressed his disappointment in a message on Twitter.

"Years of malnutrition, insecurity, crime, corruption. Congress? No action. Amazing how fast they act to protect selves from prosecution," he said. "Really? National emergency? What a shame!"

Separately, Morales' spokesman, Heinz Heimann, said the president would return a mysterious salary bonus that he had been receiving from the army and that had raised his salary by more than a third, making him one of Latin America's best-paid leaders.

"The president returned it out of good faith," Heimann said of the payment, which is being probed by Guatemala's federal comptroller.

On Monday, Morales will travel to New York and will head to the United Nations for the annual general assembly the following day.