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Peru’s attorney general reverses course on corruption probe

January 2, 2019
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A demonstrator holds up a poster that reads in Spanish: "Get out Chavarry!", referring to Attorney General Pedro Chavarry, in Lima, Peru, Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2019. Chavarry reversed his dismissal of the lead investigators in a sweeping corruption probe, retreating after drawing a public outcry and a bid by the president to remove him from office. (AP Photo/Martin Mejia)

LIMA, Peru (AP) — Peru’s attorney general on Wednesday reversed his dismissal of the lead investigators in a sweeping corruption probe into top officials, retreating in the face of a growing public outcry and a bid by the president that could remove him from office.

Attorney General Pedro Chavarry’s announcement came just two days after he abruptly removed the prosecutors, a move that sparked street protests across Peru.

The action threatened to derail the investigation into whether several former presidents and other high-ranking officials accepted money from the Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht.

Despite Chavarry’s retreat, President Martin Vizcarra pressed forward with his plans to rebuild the attorney general’s office. He urged lawmakers to declare an emergency in the office, which could pave the way for Chavarry’s removal.

Vizcarra walked down a Lima street to the congressional building to hand-deliver the proposed legislation, trailed by a crowd of roughly 2,000 supporters, a sign of his growing support among Peruvians tired of public corruption.

He praised Chavarry’s reversal of course.

“It is good that a decision under such scrutiny has been rectified,” Vizcarra said after leaving Congress, but he added that he would press forward with his drive to root out corruption in the Public Prosecutor’s Office.

It was unclear when lawmakers might take up the president’s bill.

Congress is controlled by the opposition party led by former first daughter Keiko Fujimori, who is among those being investigated. But she backed the president’s proposal Wednesday.

The fight arose over the Brazilian construction firm Oderbrecht, which has admitted in U.S. court filings to winning public works contracts by paying $800 million in bribes to officials across Latin America, including $29 million in Peru.

Chavarry reinstated chief prosecutor Jose Domingo Perez and the investigating team’s fiscal coordinator, Rafael Vela. In December, they reached an agreement with Odebrecht executives who said they would deliver documents exposing bribes made to officials.

Prosecutors say the evidence is key to their cases against opposition led by powerful former first daughter Keiko Fujimori and former President Alan Garcia. The agreement was due to be signed in early January.

Chavarry made his surprise announcement of the prosecutors’ removal in the final hours of New Year’s Eve. He said he removed Perez for questioning his election as attorney general and Vela for supporting him. Chavarry also accused the prosecutors of blocking his request for information on the Odebrecht case, and he said Perez had made statements calling into doubt his objectivity.

Prosecutors also have publicly accused Chavarry of having ties with criminal organizations made up of magistrates and businessmen who bartered power for favors or money — a point Vizcarra used in pitching his proposed legislation to Congress.

The far-reaching probe includes 40 individual cases, more than 300 people and dozens of companies, all linked to Odebrecht projects in Peru.

But the most important cases involve Fujimori, who has been jailed while she is investigated, and Garcia, who is prohibited from leaving Peru for 18 months while being investigated.

Despite being behind bars for more than two months already, Fujimori said on Twitter that she backed Vizcarra’s effort to reform the attorney general’s office. She urged her party to support the president’s emergency declaration.

“Peruvians once again must regain trust in their institutions,” she said. “We need a Public Ministry without doubt or suspicion, where authorities guarantee that all Peruvians find truth and justice, free of biases or privileges.”