SAO PAULO, March 4 (Reuters) - A Brazilian lobbyist implicated in the country's largest-ever corruption probe has called witnesses from four foreign countries to bolster his defense against bribery charges, highlighting the Petrobras scandal's growing international reach.
The judge overseeing the probe agreed to the lobbyist's request to call five witnesses from South Korea, the Netherlands, Cayman Islands and Japan for questioning over alleged kickbacks for former Petroleo Brasileiro SA (Petrobras) executives and intermediaries on deals with a Korean shipbuilding firm, the court said on Wednesday.
The overseas witnesses were called by lobbyist Fernando Soares, who prosecutors say was the middleman for alleged bribe payments by the shipbuilder, Samsung Heavy Industries Co Ltd . Soares' lawyers could not be reached for comment.
Those summoned include executives from Samsung and Petrobras' Dutch subsidiary Petrobras International Braspetro BV, court documents showed.
Neither Samsung Heavy Industries nor its executives have been charged, but prosecutors mentioned evidence the Korean company had paid bribes in corruption and money laundering charges filed late last year against Petrobras' former international director Nestor Cervero and three others.
Cervero's lawyer Edson Ribeiro said the requested witnesses had participated in a meeting with his client and could prove there had been no irregularities when Petrobras acquired drillships from Samsung Heavy Industries in 2006 and 2007. While the overseas witnesses were called by Soares, Cervero's lawyer said they could benefit him too.
Samsung Heavy Industries did not respond to request for comment.
The federal court in Curitiba overseeing the money laundering probe expedited the formal letters for judicial assistance abroad on Tuesday, a spokeswoman for the court said.
The investigation, known as "Operation Car Wash," has delayed much-needed construction projects and threatened Brazil's economic growth due to the alleged involvement of top engineering contractors.
It also shook Brazil's capital on Tuesday when the country's top prosecutor asked the Supreme Court to open investigations into 54 people, most of whom are thought to be politicians accused of benefiting from the multibillion-dollar kickback scheme.
The requests for international cooperation are based on a judicial cooperation agreement between Brazil and South Korea and a United Nations corruption convention Brazil signed in 2006, according to court documents.
Federal Judge Sergio Moro had mentioned the request for overseas witnesses in previous public court filings. He noted that requesting them could delay a trial in which defendants have already spent months in jail. (Editing by Todd Benson and Christian Plumb)