Colombia offers asylum to Venezuela prosecutor

Hector Velasco
Venezuela's dismissed chief prosecutor Luisa Ortega has become one of President Nicolas Maduro's most vocal critics

Colombia offered asylum and government protection Monday to Venezuela's sacked chief prosecutor Luisa Ortega, who fled her country after defying President Nicolas Maduro over a deadly political crisis.

The move by Colombia's Juan Manuel Santos risked raising tensions with Maduro, under pressure from regional and international powers who accuse him of repressing his opponents.

A former loyalist of the socialist leadership, the 59-year-old Ortega had broken ranks with Maduro to become his most high-ranking domestic critic.

"Luisa Ortega is under the protection of the Colombian government. If she asks for asylum, we will grant it to her," Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos said on Twitter.

- 'Persecution' -

Immigration officials in Colombia said Ortega arrived in the country on Friday with her husband, lawmaker German Ferrer, on a private flight from the Dutch Caribbean island of Aruba.

Ferrer himself faces an arrest warrant issued by the pro-Maduro Supreme Court for alleged corruption.

Ortega was already facing prosecution in the pro-Maduro court for alleged misconduct.

She rejected the charges against her as "political persecution."

Venezuelan authorities had banned her from traveling abroad.

- Corruption claims -

Maduro has faced months of deadly mass protests by opponents who blame him for an economic crisis and are demanding elections to replace him.

Last month, he set up a new constitutional authority packed with his allies, which a few days later removed Ortega from her post.

She hit back on Friday by claiming she had evidence implicating Maduro and his close allies in an international bribery scandal involving Brazilian construction firm Odebrecht.

"They are very worried and anxious, because they know we have details on all the cooperation, amounts and people who got rich," Ortega told a meeting of Latin American prosecutors in Mexico by video conference.

"And that investigation involves Mr Nicolas Maduro and his inner circle."

Maduro counter-attacked on Sunday, alleging on television that Ortega had received money for blocking corruption investigations that he had ordered.

He accused Ferrer of running an "extortion network" in the state prosecution service.

Opposition leader Henrique Capriles was also forced on Monday to deny claims that his 2012 election campaign had received money from Odebrecht.

- Sparring with Santos -

Colombia's Santos has joined other regional and world powers in criticizing Maduro.

On taking office in 2010, Santos hailed Maduro's late mentor and predecessor Hugo Chavez as his "new best friend."

But since Maduro was elected in 2013, Venezuela has descended into chaos that has raised fears for regional stability.

The fall in world prices for its oil exports has left it short of dollars for vital imports.

Maduro's critics accuse him of clinging to power through undemocratic means amid shortages of food and medicine.

Venezuela's center-right-led MUD opposition coalition accuses security forces of beating and killing protesters.

Clashes between protesters and police this year have left 125 people dead, according to prosecutors.

- Santos 'dictatorship' warning -

Santos has warned Maduro against installing a "dictatorship" by cracking down on opponents and taking control of the state institutions.

He supports the United States in its sanctions against Maduro and his allies.

Taking Ortega under his wing is a further move to pressure Maduro.

"The Venezuelan government will obviously not like this decision and will launch another charge against Santos," said Ricardo Abello, an international law specialist at Colombia's Rosario University.

"But at this stage, one charge more or less makes little difference."