Peru president avoids impeachment, now faces criminal probe

Peru president avoids impeachment, now faces criminal probe

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LIMA, Peru (AP) — President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski's troubles are far from over despite having dodged impeachment over ties to the Brazilian construction giant implicated in Latin America's biggest corruption scandal.

Peru's leader still faces a distracting criminal investigation into his involvement with Odebrecht, potentially opening another chapter in the bribery scandal that has ended the careers of some of the region's most prominent politicians. Kuczynski is due for questioning at the chief prosecutor's office next week.

Opposition legislators, who control Congress, fell eight votes short of the two-thirds threshold in the 130-seat chamber needed to oust the president Thursday night following a half-day of impassioned debate.

Kuczynski had argued that the opposition's rush to bring on the impeachment vote threatened Peru's democracy, and on Friday he said in a message to the nation that he will demand "firmly" respect for the separation of powers.

But the president, whose approval rating in polls is around 18 percent, also said he would carry out a "deep evaluation" of his administration and announce changes for 2018 "collecting lessons from the experience accumulated so far "

He also said Peruvians should be given the opportunity to reconcile and put aside "the polarized and hostile environment in which we live."

While the impeachment attempt left Kuczynski weakened, it also revealed divisions inside the opposition Popular Force party, which led the impeachment drive. Lawmaker Kenji Fujimori, brother of the party's leader, abstained from the impeachment vote. Both Kenji and party leader Keiko Fujimori are children of jailed former President Alberto Fujimori.

Keiko Fujimori, 42, has tried to push a conservative political agenda while her brother has maintained amicable relations with Kuczynski and other opponents as he presses for the release of their father from prison.

Some lawmakers said Kuczynski won support in Congress by agreeing to free the former strongman, a charge the president and his supporters denied. Kuczynski has said he is evaluating Alberto Fujimori's sentence based on factors including the former president's health.

Eduardo Dargent, a political science professor at Pontifical Catholic University of Peru, said a pardon by Kuczynski would insult in a "serious way his base of voters" who supported him over Alberto Fujimori's daughter.

Kuczynski is one of several politicians in Latin America to be dogged by allegations of taking illicit money from Odebrecht. The Brazilian firm admitted in a 2016 U.S. Justice Department agreement to paying nearly $800 million in kickbacks to politicians, their campaigns and political parties to secure lucrative public works contracts.

In Ecuador, Vice President Jorge Glas has been sentenced to six years in prison for orchestrating an Odebrecht bribery scheme. Former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva is appealing his conviction on charges of corruption and money laundering related to the plot. In Peru, two former presidents stand accused of accepting money from Odebrecht. One is behind bars and the other in the U.S. seeking to avoid extradition.

Kuczynski found himself fighting for survival after an opposition-led investigative committee revealed documents last week showing Odebrecht made $782,000 in payments to his private consulting firm more than a decade ago. Some of the payments overlapped with years that Kuczynski spent as a high-ranking government minister.

During his 30-minute testimony Thursday, Kuczynski showed the contracts in question on an overhead screen, pointing out that none contained his signature. He said that he had no knowledge of the payments and that he never favored any company while in office.

"I am here to look you in the eye, and tell you that I am not corrupt and I have not lied," he said.

The president's detractors contended that he should have disclosed the payments before taking office and that as a high-ranking government minister when the money was paid should have done a better job to shield himself from potential conflicts of interest.

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