Venezuela govt links dissident ex-prosecutor to extortion

AP News
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Posted: Aug 16, 2017 7:45 PM
Venezuela govt links dissident ex-prosecutor to extortion

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuelan authorities raided the house of ousted chief prosecutor Luisa Ortega on Wednesday and said they would seek the arrest of her husband for allegedly running a $6 million extortion ring with corrupt prosecutors under her supervision.

Tarek William Saab, who replaced Ortega after she was removed by the pro-government constitutional assembly, said the alleged criminal ring squeezed a range of defendants as well as businessmen in the nation's oil industry to protect them from prosecution.

He held up bank records which he said were evidence that Ortega's husband, formerly pro-government lawmaker German Ferrer, opened a $1 million account at the Bahamas branch of a Swiss bank last year with a prosecutor in charge of the nation's biggest corruption case.

"What we're exposing today is the tip of the iceberg of a cartel," Saab said, alleging that Ortega, while not among those formally accused, surely knew of the crimes taking place. "This institution was converted into an authentic center of blackmail."

Shortly after he spoke, Venezuelan intelligence agents raided Ortega's apartment near downtown Caracas.

Saab's call for Ferrer's arrest came minutes after the leader of the ruling socialist party, Diosdado Cabello, appeared at his office to denounce the purported ring, leading many to conclude the accusation is an attempt to silence Ortega.

Ortega said she was being targeted because of her efforts to fight "totalitarianism."

"They're trying to end our fight for Venezuela's freedom and democracy," she said on Twitter, blaming Cabello as well as President Nicolas Maduro by name.

A longtime government loyalist, Ortega broke with Maduro in April and has led opposition to his plans to rewrite the constitution, accusing the embattled president of betraying the legacy of the late Hugo Chavez and being immersed in corruption.

Also being sought for arrest are the prosecutor and the defending attorney in a case involving $100 million in bribes that Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht has acknowledged paying to top officials in exchange for contracts in Venezuela. Before being removed, Ortega had sought charges against the wife and mother-in-law of Maduro's former transport minister, Haiman El Troudi, who has denied any wrongdoing.

Saab and Cabello said the alleged ring laundered money from extortion through a network of offshore companies and foundations in Panama and Colombia. He asked the constitutional assembly, whose creation this month has been condemned by dozens of foreign governments as an illegitimate power grab, to strip Ferrer of his congressional immunity from prosecution.

The targeting of Ortega came as concern spread that the all-powerful constitutional assembly will deepen a crackdown on Maduro's opponents.

Meeting Wednesday, a truth commission set up by the assembly said it would investigate politicians who it said were responsible for violence at protests that left more than 120 people dead and hundreds more injured or jailed.

They singled out congress President Julio Borges, accusing him of trying to sabotage the economy by sending letters to several international banks warning them of the reputational risk of doing business with the Maduro government.

Borges in a press conference called on all legislatures from around Latin America to denounce the arrest order against Ferrer as an attack on the Venezuelan congress.

"In Venezuela there is no respect for institutions," he said.