FILE PHOTO: Former Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo then candidate during a campaign rally in Chimbote, Peru, May 25, 2000. REUTERS/Mariana Bazo/File Photo(reuters_tickers)
LIMA (Reuters) - A Peruvian judge on Thursday ordered former president Alejandro Toledo to spend up to 18 months in jail while prosecutors prepare criminal charges against him for allegedly taking $20 million in bribes from Brazilian builder Odebrecht SA.
Toledo, who has denied taking any bribes related to a lucrative highway contract Odebrecht won in his 2001-2006 term, was in France last week. His lawyer said Toledo would not flee but declined to say what country he was in.
Judge Richard Concepcion said Toledo should be sought for arrest in Peru and abroad.
The evidence uncovered so far in a far-reaching graft probe, including testimony from an Odebrecht executive and bank records, merits putting Toledo in "preventive prison" while charges of influence peddling and money laundering are prepared against him, Concepcion said.
If found guilty, Toledo could be sentenced to up to 15 years in prison, lead prosecutor Hamilton Castro said.
Odebrecht has been at the centre of a growing graft scandal in Latin America since admitting to doling out hundreds of millions of dollars in bribes from Peru to Panama.
The revelation, made in U.S. courts in December, threatens to implicate presidents and former presidents who once promoted the hydroelectric plants, highways and irrigation canals that Odebrecht has built in the past two decades.
Toledo "laughed at Peruvian society, he laughed at the expectations Peruvian society had for...clean public work projects," Castro said in a public hearing.
Toledo's attorney Heriberto Benitez said the evidence was not strong enough to jail Toledo without a trial, calling the move a hallmark of autocratic regimes.
Some $10 million in transfers from Odebrecht have been traced to offshore companies linked to Yosef Maiman, an Israeli businessman and longtime friend of Toledo tasked with receiving the bribes, Castro said.
Maiman did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
(Reporting By Mitra Taj; Editing by Michael Perry)