Peruvian judge frees opposition leader Fujimori from prison

LIMA (Reuters) - A Peruvian judge late on Wednesday freed conservative opposition leader Keiko Fujimori from jail where she spent the past week pending charges in a money laundering probe.

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Judge Cesar Sahuanay said there was no legal basis for jailing Fujimori and 19 others before trial in connection with alleged payments from Odebrecht, a Brazilian construction group at the center of the region’s biggest ever graft probe.

Fujimori, the daughter of former autocrat Alberto Fujimori, called her arrest political persecution. She denied prosecutors’ allegations that she was the head of a criminal group within her political party and a flight risk.

“I’m never going to flee the country,” Fujimori said, reminding the court that she remained in Peru when her father escaped to Japan at the end of his 1990-2000 rightwing government. “I didn’t leave Peru in 2000. I was here as always with my head high. I’ve never obstructed justice.”

The ruling marked the second time this year that a court has released a prominent politician from so-called “preventive prison,” or pre-trial detention, a tool used by prosecutors to ensure suspects cooperate in the Odebrecht bribery probe.

In April, the country’s top court freed former president Ollanta Humala, who had spent nine months in jail without trial over allegations he laundered money for Odebrecht. Humala denied wrongdoing.

Criticism of preventive prison has grown since Fujimori’s arrest. But prosecutors say it is vital to ending impunity in a country with a storied history of high-profile flights.

Also on Wednesday, centrist President Martin Vizcarra announced he was replacing his interior minister after his government admitted that a judge at the center of a separate cronyism investigation had managed to flee to Spain.

Vizcarra’s approval rating surged 16 points in an Ipsos survey this month after he threatened to dissolve Congress unless it passed his anti-graft proposals, which are supported by a majority of Peruvians.

A twice-defeated presidential candidate, Fujimori led her father’s political movement following his 2007 imprisonment for human rights crimes. She now commands the country’s most powerful opposition party.

But Fujimori has seen her popularity plummet amid a broader backlash against established politicians in the wake of the Odebrecht scandal. Prosecutors have accused her of leading a criminal group that took $1.2 million in illegal funds from Odebrecht for her 2011 presidential campaign. She denies taking money from Odebrecht.

Earlier this month, a judge annulled a pardon granted to her father. He has been in hospital since the ruling.

Reporting by Mitra Taj and Teresa Cespedes; Editing by Susan Thomas