The recent acquittal of a senator accused of embezzling over $100 million has sparked protests in the Dominican Republic and a "crisis of faith" in the country's judiciary, according to business leaders.
A Dominican Republic court recently acquitted Senator Felix Bautista on charges of money laundering and embezzling more than $100 million of government money through contracts he approved to a foreign development firm. A judge ruled the case should be dropped due to lack of evidence, a decision the nation's Attorney General has strongly criticized, declaring, "Impunity has triumphed."
In the wake of the ruling, street protests have popped up in numerous cities and towns, religious groups have denounced the decision and the nation's National Business Council (CONEP) questioned the judiciary's ability to do its job.
"There can be no trust in institutions and the state itself, if there’s no confidence in the independence of the judiciary," a CONEP press release said.
Bautista has been the target of similar allegations in the past. In 2012, the senator was accused of bribing Haitian President Michel Martelly to secure labor contracts and is currently being investigated in Peru for possible illegal campaign contributions to ex-Peru President Alejandro Toledo.
Following Bautista's acquittal, the Dominican Republic's Attorney General's Office has said it will appeal the court's decision.
InSight Crime Analysis
Accusations of widespread and high-level corruption involving the Dominican Republic political elite is nothing new. In February, convicted drug trafficker Quirino Paulino Castillo claimed to have financed the campaign of Bautista-ally and former Dominican Republic President Leonel Fernandez. That month also saw protests -- organized by the political opposition -- against a mayor accused of embezzling millions of dollars of public money.
Security forces in the country have also been repeatedly linked to criminal activity. A top-level prosecutor recently claimed police and military are involved in 90 percent of the nation's organized crime cases.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of the Dominican Republic
Whether the outrage that Bautista's acquittal sparked in some sectors of the Dominican Republic will lead to a greater political crisis remains to be seen. There may be more revelations about alleged dirty political dealings -- and the judiciary's inability to independently and efficiently scrutinize these -- in the coming weeks. An indictment that the US Justice Department recently released against New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez includes a statement that the country's former head of Customs -- also an ally of Fernandez and a major power broker in the Dominican Republic -- is "highly corrupt."