LATIN AMERICA

Brazilians lose trust in judiciary following ruling to retry convicted politicians

Lula da Silva’s former chief of staff will be able to argue for a reduction in his sentence

Demonstrators protest the Supreme Court's decision on Wednesday in Brazil.
Demonstrators protest the Supreme Court's decision on Wednesday in Brazil.Fernando Bizerra Jr. / EFE

With a Supreme Court decision to reopen the biggest corruption investigation in modern history and retry 12 convicted public officials, Brazil found itself on Thursday facing a renewed wave of street protests against government institutions while many citizens questioned whether justice is served out equally in their county.

The top court voted six to five to reopen the so-called mensalão case, which ended last year with convictions and lengthy prison terms handed down to 25 former Workers’ Party (PT) officials, including the once-powerful chief of staff to former President Luiz Inácio Lula de Silva.

They were found guilty of taking part in a scheme to pay lawmakers in Congress a monthly (mensalão) stipend in exchange for voting in favor of legislation introduced during Lula da Silva’s first term (2003-2007). Lula da Silva, who went on to win a second term, wasn’t charged. But his chief of staff, José Dirceu, received close to 11 years for his role.

On Wednesday, an impasse on the Supreme Court was broken when Justice Celso de Mello cast his vote in favor of opening the case based on an appeal that Dirceu and 11 others filed.

Dirceu, who was out on bail awaiting his appeal, said he was satisfied with the decision. Under the ruling, his lawyers will be able to argue for a reduction of his sentence or even ask that he be placed under house arrest.

One of the major arguments in the appeal was that the Supreme Court was under public pressure to hand down the convictions and lengthy sentences. The 12 appellants qualified to file their review under an old Supreme Court clause.

After the final vote, Brazilians were stunned by the Supreme Court’s decision, which basically discards the 44,000-page case file including evidence gathered over seven years of judicial investigation and presented at trial last year.

Just over a year ago, the main witness in the case, Marcos Valerio, who was one of the main operators in the mensalão scheme, testified that Lula da Silva was completely aware of the vote-buying in Congress, for which money of an unknown origin was used. The allegation was serious enough for the Supreme Court to investigate further but it did not follow it up.

The reopening of the case will also mean that the honeymoon period between Brazilians and the justice system – which blossomed after last year’s convictions – is now over and street demonstrations are expected to surge once again.

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