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Peru attorney general reverses decision on graft probe

LIMA (Reuters) – Peru Attorney General Pedro Chavarry on Wednesday reappointed two lead prosecutors he had dismissed from a high-profile graft probe after the decision sparked widespread opposition and a threat by President Martin Vizcarra to suspend him.

The prosecutors, Rafael Vela and Jose Domingo Perez, had recently drawn up a plea deal with Odebrecht that committed the Brazilian construction company to providing evidence on some $30 million in bribes it says it paid to local politicians.

The two are celebrated as anti-graft crusaders by many Peruvians for going after high-profile politicians, including four former presidents and opposition leader Keiko Fujimori.

But late on Monday, Chavarry announced he was removing Vela and Perez from the case for exceeding their authority.

By Wednesday, after protests and waves of criticism, Chavarry signed a resolution reappointing them to their posts, saying other prosecutors had declined to replace them.

The reversal was a fresh win for President Vizcarra, who had promised to do all he could to return the two prosecutors to the case. Earlier on Wednesday Vizcarra sent Congress legislation to suspend Chavarry from his post and declare a state of emergency in the attorney general’s office in order to restructure it.

Chavarry has denied that he sought to meddle in the Odebrecht probe by dismissing Perez and Vela.

Vizcarra, who took office to replace former president Pedro Pablo Kuczynski after his resignation due to a graft scandal last year, has made fighting corruption a core focus of his government. His approval rating at the end of 2018 exceeded 60 percent after reforms he proposed to uproot entrenched corruption cronyism easily passed a national referendum.

Vizcarra has repeatedly called for Chavarry to step down, but under Peru’s constitution only Congress can force the attorney general from office.

Odebrecht is at the center of the “Car Wash” investigation in Brazil, which has rippled across Latin America and which U.S. prosecutors have said is the biggest political graft scheme ever uncovered.

In 2016, Odebrecht acknowledged it had paid millions of dollars in bribes to officials in a dozen countries to secure public works contracts dating back over a decade. The company has committed to paying billions of dollars in fines.

Reporting by Mitra Taj; Editing by Phil Berlowitz

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