LIMA, June 25 (Reuters) - A federal judge in Lima has ordered a regional president detained for 14 months while prosecutors prepare corruption charges against the official, who is the main opponent of Newmont Mining’s $5 billion stalled Conga gold project.
Judge Mercedes Caballero ruled at a hearing on Wednesday that Gregorio Santos, president of the mineral-rich Cajamarca region in northern Peru, must be held before being tried because he might flee the country or disrupt the corruption inquiry now under way.
Santos’ arrest comes just months before he planned to seek a second four-year term as regional president, effectively clearing the electoral path for candidates who might favor the project.
Judge Caballero said Santos would have to remain in custody for 14 months while the prosecution prepares its case, less than the 18 months requested. If Santos is tried and found innocent before then, he could be released.
Santos, a member of the communist party Patria Roja and a former peasant patrol leader, led dozens of protests against Conga that forced U.S.-based Newmont to suspend construction on its Conga gold project in 2011.
Prosecutor Walter Delgado said Santos received bribes from companies in exchange for awarding 11 local public work contracts.
Santos has denied wrongdoing and said his appearance at the public hearing was an indication he had no intention of fleeing.
“I am not running away,” Santos told the judge. “I‘m here at your disposal and the disposal of justice.”
Santos has called the current inquiry and others before it political persecution aimed at removing him from power so the Conga project can go forward.
Santos’ lawyer will file an appeal, said Olmedo Auris, a political leader close to Santos.
After Santos was escorted away by police, a small group of supporters protested the judge’s decision outside the courthouse.
Santos is the third regional president in Peru to be detained in recent months as the attorney general’s office aims to crack down on corruption of provincial officials.
The Conga project would offset dwindling gold deposits at Newmont’s nearby Yanacocha mine, which is nearing the end of its life. Opponents say Conga would pollute or deplete water sources used by Andean peasants and have rejected the company’s plans to build reservoirs for community use.
Newmont controls 51.35 percent of Conga, and Peruvian mining company Buenaventura holds 43.65 percent. (Reporting by Mitra Taj; Editing by Ken Wills)