Ecuador ex-president held under house arrest in corruption probe

©Agence France-Presse

Ecuador's ex-president Abdala Bucaram, pictured in 2017, spent 20 years in exile after he was removed from office in 1997

Quito (AFP) - A judge in Ecuador on Thursday placed former president Abdala Bucaram under house arrest over his alleged involvement in a corruption scandal blamed in the murder of an Israeli prison inmate, the public prosecutor said.

Abdala, who claims to be the victim of government persecution, will be under "police surveillance 24 hours a day," the public prosecutor said.

The 68-year-old, who was removed from office in 1997 after just six months, was arrested Wednesday, accused of links to organized crime as part of an investigation into overpriced hospital supplies during the coronavirus pandemic.

The case took a grim turn on Saturday when an Israeli inmate was attacked and killed in a prison in the southwestern port city of Guayaquil. 

A second Israeli was wounded in the attack. The pair, arrested as part of the corruption investigation, claimed to have sold thousands of coronavirus tests to the ex-president's son.

When arrested, the two Israelis were carrying $100,000 and forged credentials from the US Drug Enforcement Administration.

Investigators suspect the doctored documents were given to the Israelis by members of the metropolitan transit agency (ATM) in the capital Quito.

One ATM employee was arrested alongside Bucaram and three others are being investigated.

Bucaram and the others implicated in the corruption scandal faces charges of "unjustified private enrichment, fraud, fraudulent use of a public document, tax evasion ... crimes against life," said the public prosecutor.

Interior Minister Maria Paula Romo said on Wednesday that Bucaram would be asked to clarify whether he had any relationship with the Israelis.

He is also accused of trafficking arms and heritage assets that were found at his home, alongside medical supplies, during a search in June, when he was also briefly detained.

Despite the accusations against him, Bucaram has declared his candidacy for February's presidential election.

The former president was removed from office in February 1997 after just six months when parliament declared him mentally unfit amid widespread protests against his government, despite having no medical justification for its ruling.

Following that, the populist Bucaram spent two decades in exile in Panama.