Ecuador's National Assembly has opened an impeachment trial against President Guillermo Lasso, who is likely to be stripped of office for embezzlement.
The hearing began at 10 a.m. on Tuesday, with the presence of 109 of the 137 Assembly members that comprise Congress, where the opposition holds a majority of seats, reports Xinhua news agency.
Lasso, a 67-year-old former banker, is accused by the opposition of embezzling funds through a contract signed between state-owned oil tanker fleet Flota Petrolera Ecuatoriana and the privately-owned company Amazonas Tanker, for the rental of vessels to ship hydrocarbons.
The contract was signed in 2018 and renewed in 2020, before he took office in May 2021.
But his opponents claimed he allowed the business arrangement to continue despite knowing it meant losses for the state.
"The political responsibility of the president is irrefutable, since we are convinced that he not only knew about and allowed corruption, but that he was a strategic part of it," lawmaker Viviana Veloz of the opposition coalition Union for Hope (Unes) led by former president Rafael Correa (2007-2017) said during Tuesday's hearing.
Lasso argued in his defence and accused the opposition of making the "absurd accusation" to create instability.
"What is at stake is not merely the viability of a government, but Ecuador as a nation. We are putting the soul of our democracy at risk," he said.
"There is no evidence or relevant testimonies. The only thing there is information that proves my total, evident and unquestionable innocence."
Lasso pointed out that the contract was signed in 2018 and renewed in 2020, before he became President in May 2021, and that he did not get involved in state company business dealings.
This is the first time in Ecuador's 44 years as a democracy that a President has faced possible ouster by the legislative branch.
The vote on impeachment could take place as early as May 20.
Impeachment requires the votes of two-thirds of the 137-member Assembly, or 92 lawmakers.
The trial has gripped the nation, which went through a period of political upheaval between August 1996 and January 2007, when Ecuador was governed by seven presidents with three of them being overthrown.
Hundreds of Lasso's supporters arrived in the capital Quito on Tuesday from across the country to show their support by gathering outside the National Assembly, which was surrounded by metal fences and guarded by police.
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