The Brazilian Supreme Court on Monday sentenced former presidential chief of staff José Dirceu to nearly 11 years in prison for his role in organizing a government bribery scheme, which has become the country's biggest corruption scandal to date.
Dirceu of the Workers' Party (PT), who served under President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and was considered one of the most powerful politicians in the country, will have to serve 10 years and eight months for his conviction on charges of being a member of a corruption conspiracy and belonging to an illegal organized group.
In a statement posted on his blog entitled Unfair Sentence, Dirceu maintained his innocence. "I never committed any illegal or criminal act as a member of the PT, member of parliament or government minister," he said, adding that the entire case "lacked substantial evidence."
But Justice Joaquim Barbosa wrote of Dirceu in his ruling: "He put the basis of an entire democratic system at risk."
Dirceu was also ordered to pay a fine of 676,000 reals or 260,000 euros
The case, known as the mensalão (monthly wage) scandal, involved hundreds of thousands of reals in payments to key congressmen to ensure they voted in favor of Lula da Silva's legislation during his first term (2003-2007). The president was never directly implicated in the scandal but he tearfully apologized for the behavior of his most trusted aides. Even though the case rocked his administration, Lula da Silva went on to win a second term, which he completed on December 31, 2010.
In handing down the sentence, the judge considered the prominent role Dirceu had played among the other 24 former officials who were also convicted in the case last month. Dirceu's sentence was the first to be handed down against a top-ranking government official following the trial that lasted more than two months. Also on Monday, then-PT president José Genoino was sentenced to six years and 11 months, while former party treasurer Delubio Soares was given eight years and 11 months.
Dirceu, who founded the PT party in 2002 along with Lula da Silva, was also ordered to pay a fine of 676,000 reals or 260,000 euros.
In candid comments made on Tuesday, Justice Minister Eduardo Cardozo said he would "rather die than spend many years inside one of our jails." Cardozo, who is one of the most respected Cabinet members of current President Dilma Rousseff's administration, said he preferred not to make any statements concerning the sentences but his surprising comment to a group of businessmen was seen as a public condemnation of his fellow PT members.
According to the minister, who is responsible for Brazil's estimated 500,000 prison inmates, jail conditions in his country "generate so many human rights violations that not even introducing the death penalty would bring them down."
"We have a medieval prison system, where human rights are not respected and which doesn't allow any possibility for the rehabilitation of an inmate so he or she can rejoin society," Cardozo said, clarifying that he was speaking as a private citizen rather than in his role as a minister.