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Venezuela's Ex-Prosecutor Accuses President Maduro Of Corruption


As Venezuela's president, Nicolas Maduro, becomes increasingly autocratic, he's gathering enemies. One of the most influential of those is a lawyer from within his own government. She is now in Brazil and speaking out, as NPR's Philip Reeves reports.


LUISA ORTEGA: (Speaking Spanish).

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: This scene was impossible to imagine just a few months ago. Louisa Ortega, the former attorney general of Venezuela, is standing before the world's TV cameras, accusing her erstwhile ally President Nicolas Maduro of corruption. Ortega was Venezuela's chief prosecutor for almost a decade. For almost all that time, she was loyal to the governments of Hugo Chavez and, after he died, his successor, Maduro.

FRANCISCO TORO: She used to be a reliable person that they're going to turn to to get investigations dropped or to get enemies prosecuted.

REEVES: Francisco Toro is editor of Caracas Chronicles, a website about Venezuelan politics.

TORO: There are many political prisoners in Venezuela today who were prosecuted by Louisa Ortega. So she makes a very unlikely champion for the Venezuelan opposition. And yet there she is.

REEVES: Those prisoners include Leopoldo Lopez, perhaps Venezuela's most prominent opposition leader now under house arrest. Louisa Ortega broke with Maduro around five months ago. She objected when the Supreme Court that he controls tried to annul the powers of the National Assembly, an elected body dominated by the opposition. She also accused Venezuela's security forces of using excessive force when responding to mass street protests.

Ortega particularly condemned Maduro's decision to create an all-powerful new legislature, a constituent assembly that he controls. That assembly started work nearly three weeks ago and immediately fired Ortega. She arrived at her office in the capital, Caracas, to find troops outside, sped off on the back of a motorbike and went into hiding, saying she was in fear of her life. The other day, Ortega fled the country reportedly by boat with her husband, a parliamentarian who the Venezuelan authorities also want to prosecute. Now Ortega's taking her campaign against Maduro onto the international stage.


ORTEGA: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: Speaking in Brazil, Ortega said she has evidence implicating Maduro in corrupt dealings involving Odebrecht, the Brazilian construction giant at the center of Latin America's massive kickbacks for contract scandal. Odebrecht denies the allegation. It's not clear how much impact Ortega's accusations will have. Francisco Toro says that declaring Venezuela's government corrupt isn't exactly hot news.

TORO: Everybody knows. Everybody knows in the international arena outside Venezuela, inside Venezuela.

REEVES: Some Venezuelans suspect the real reason Ortega split from Maduro was because she thought his government was about to fall.

MARGARITA LOPEZ MAYA: In the beginning, people didn't believe her at all. I mean the opposition had seen her for so many years so loyal and supportive to government that it - they distrusted tremendously. But now she has - she had to run out of the country, you know?

REEVES: That's Professor Margarita Lopez Maya of the Catholic University in Caracas speaking via Skype. Maya thinks attitudes towards Ortega are changing.

LOPEZ MAYA: As the months have gone by, I think that people in Venezuela are more and more convinced that her turn away from the Maduro administration is honest.

REEVES: Maduro certainly seems to be taking Louisa Ortega seriously. He wants her arrested and sent home to Venezuela for trial. Philip Reeves, NPR News, Rio de Janeiro.

(SOUNDBITE OF SLACKK'S "ZIP ME UP") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.