Chile lower house OKs impeachment trial for President Pinera

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Chile's lower house of congress on Tuesday approved an impeachment trial for President Sebastian Pinera over corruption allegations originating from the Pandora Papers leaks.

Lawmakers in the Chamber of Deputies garnered the 78 votes required to seek impeachment and advance proceedings to the Senate over Pinera's alleged involvement in the controversial sale of a mining company.

The call for the impeachment of Pinera -- who is in the final stretch of a second non-consecutive term that began in March 2018 -- was presented in early October by members of the opposition, including socialist deputy Jaime Naranjo.

Naranjo took 15 hours on the floor Monday to read from the 1,300-page accusation against the president, arguing Pinera's "impunity" should end in the South American nation rattled by social unrest that broke out in 2019.

The marathon speech was apparently designed to allow another left-wing lawmaker, Giorgio Jackson, to complete a period of quarantine and join the process before it ended so he could vote.

"What we saw was a show," said Juan Jose Ossa, the minister general-secretary of the presidency, an equivalent to the chief of staff.

The case grew as new details emerged about a deal first revealed in the Pandora Papers document leak, which highlighted offshore transactions involving political figures.

Naranjo highlighted potential corruption around the 2010 sale of the huge Dominga mine in Chile when Pinera, a wealthy businessman, was a first-term president.

The Pandora Papers linked Pinera to the sale of Dominga, through a company owned by his children, to businessman Carlos Delano -- a close friend of the president -- for $152 million.

The papers said a large part of the operation was carried out in the British Virgin Islands, a tax haven.

"Acting as president, he benefited (himself) and his family in a direct way, with information that he had in the exercise of his office," said Naranjo, adding that Pinera's involvement pushed up the sale price.

Pinera's lawyer Jorge Galvez brought the embattled president's defense to a close before the chamber, saying: "I beg you, honorable deputies, to reject this improper constitutional accusation."

The case now moves to the Senate, where the effort to remove Pinera from office does not appear to have the necessary votes.

However, the president is barred from leaving the country while the process is under way.

Pinera risks up to five years in jail.

- Controversial clause -

The government in a statement said it hoped the Senate would dismiss the "unjust" accusations it said had "no basis, either in the facts or in law".

Pinera, one of the richest men in Chile, has denied the claims and said he was absolved in a 2017 investigation.

It is the second impeachment case brought against Pinera after an unsuccessful attempt to remove him from office in 2019 over an at-times brutal crackdown on anti-inequality protesters.

The Pandora Papers said a controversial clause was included in the Dominga deal that made the final payment of the sale conditional on "not establishing an area of environmental protection in the area of operations of the mining company, as demanded by environmental groups."

According to the investigation, the Pinera government at the time decided not to protect the area around the mine.

Galvez denied Pinera "intervened in the decision to sell" the mine, or that the decision to not protect the area was linked to the sale.

Dominga owns two open-air mines in the Atacama desert, 500 kilometers (310 miles) north of Santiago, that are yet to be exploited.

A mining project to do so was approved by a regional court but has yet to be ratified by the Supreme Court due to appeals.

The project included the construction of a cargo port close to an archipelago that is home to a national park reserve hosting protected species including 80 percent of the world's Humboldt penguins.

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