Tuesday April 6, 10:46 PM
Lithuania impeaches president over corruption scandal
Lithuania's parliament impeached President Rolandas Paksas, drawing a line under a five-month corruption scandal only weeks before the former Soviet republic joins the European Union.
"From this day April 6, 2004 Rolandas Paksas, by decision of the parliament, is dismissed from the post of president of the republic," said supreme court head Vytautas Greicius.
The assembly voted narrowly to oust him on all three charges of violating the Baltic country's constitution, although Paksas had protested his innocence to the end.
Parliament immediately prepared to hand over the presidency to speaker Arturas Paulauskas, who under the constitution will stand in for two months pending new elections.
The fate of Paksas, who became president just 15 months ago, had effectively been sealed after Lithuania's constitutional court last week found him guilty on three counts of breaching the constitution.
The support of at least 85 members of the 141-seat parliament in the former Soviet republic was needed to remove the president from office.
A total of 86 deputies voted to oust Paksas on the charges of unlawfully granting Lithuanian citizenship to a Russian businessman who sponsored his election campaign and leaking classified information, while 89 voted against him for meddling in private business.
Paksas, 47, has consistently denied any wrongdoing, saying the impeachment process is a plot against him.
In his first speech to deputies since a damning security services report unleashed the scandal five months ago, Paksas pleaded his innocence.
"I do not feel guilty," he declared, describing the vote as "not only my personal drama or tragedy, but also a challenge for our country".
"I ask you, are a few of my mistakes enough to impeach a president?" he said in a 25-minute speech before the vote.
The affair that has rocked Lithuania -- which last week became a NATO member and is set to join the EU on May 1 -- surfaced in October, when Paksas' office was accused in a security services report of having ties with shady figures.
In a sign of his imminent demise, his speech failed to impress deputies.
"I think he did not answer the questions. He showed a lack of honesty," Andrius Kubilius, a former prime minister who heads the opposition Conservative party said.
Paksas' team of lawyers had pleaded with deputies who had doubts to not take part in the vote.
"Even today or tomorrow Lithuania, having got rid of the powers of the tainted president, will be able to breathe a sigh of relief," Lithuania's biggest daily Lietuvos Rytas said in an editorial.
As Paksas arrived at parliament around 400 supporters demonstrated in front of the building amid a heavy police presence.
Paksas had vowed to stand again if impeached, something that he is allowed to do under the constitution.
Twice Vilnius mayor and twice prime minister, Paksas became president in February 2003, after winning a surprise victory against incumbent Valdas Adamkus, a 77-year-old returned US emigre.