(Adds government saying Toledo likely in the United States and may flee to Israel)
By Mitra Taj
LIMA, Feb 10 (Reuters) - Peru asked for international help in finding former president Alejandro Toledo, wanted in connection with a far-reaching bribery probe, saying on Friday that he was likely now in San Francisco and may try to flee to Israel.
The government of Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, who served as prime minister and finance minister during Toledo’s 2001-06 term, said it was asking authorities in the United States and Israel to help find and return him to Peru.
A judge on Thursday ruled that Toledo, who denies any wrongdoing, must be jailed for up to 18 months while influence peddling and money laundering charges are prepared against him.
Prosecutors allege that Toledo, 70, took $20 million in bribes from Brazil’s Odebrecht SA, a family-owned construction conglomerate at the center of Latin America’s biggest region-wide graft scandal.
The downfall of Toledo, once a pro-democracy hero and anti-corruption crusader to many in Peru, has raised questions about who might be next as Odebrecht provides testimony on high-ranking officials it bribed from Argentina to Panama.
Interpol issued a red alert notice to 190 member countries to search for and capture Toledo, Kuczynski’s Cabinet said on Friday.
The Interior Ministry has offered 100,000 soles ($30,000) for information leading to his capture.
“Anyone in the world who can help us find him can claim the reward,” Interior Minister Carlos Basombrio said. “Peru doesn’t deserve to see another president flee justice.”
Toledo rose to power denouncing widespread corruption in the government of his predecessor, Alberto Fujimori, who fled to Japan amid a far-reaching graft inquiry in 2000. Fujimori is now serving a 25-year sentence in Peru for corruption and human rights abuses during his decade-long authoritarian rule.
Toledo has not been charged with or convicted of any crimes. He was last known to be in France a week ago.
Toledo’s lawyer, Heriberto Benitez, denied that Toledo was on the run and told Reuters he was waiting for the results of an appeal. Benitez declined to say where Toledo was, citing a confidentiality agreement with his client.
After the judge’s decision, Benitez said he would recommend Toledo not return to Peru to face a justice system he called “vindictive.” He said he believes Toledo should be investigated but thought preventive detention was excessive, calling it a hallmark of autocratic regimes.
Justice Minister Marisol Perez Tello said Toledo would be guaranteed a fair trial.
“We’re all very ashamed of what this looks like internationally; all we’re asking is that he come back to explain what happened,” Perez Tello said.
Toledo has earned postgraduate economics degrees from Stanford University, near San Francisco, and has lectured there.
Toledo’s wife has Israeli citizenship and his longtime friend, Peruvian-Israeli businessman Yosef Maiman, is believed to live there.
Peru does not have an extradition treaty with Israel but does have one with the United States.
The U.S. and Israeli embassies in Lima did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Prosecutors, citing testimony from an Odebrecht executive, alleged Toledo made a pact with the company to help it win two lucrative highway contracts in exchange for bribes he asked to be deposited in the accounts of offshore companies controlled by Maiman. Authorities have traced some $10 million from Odebrecht to Maiman’s companies so far.
Maiman did not respond to requests for comment.
Toledo made two unsuccessful bids for a second presidential term in 2011 and 2016 and had not ruled out a third attempt in 2021. (Reporting By Mitra Taj, Additional Reporting by Ursula Scollo; Editing by Bernard Orr and Jonathan Oatis)