Political corruption in Brazil

AS CHIEF of staff to President Luiz In__cio Lula da Silva in 2003-05, Jos__ Dirceu was the second most powerful...

AS CHIEF of staff to President Luiz In__cio Lula da Silva in 2003-05, Jos__ Dirceu was the second most powerful man in Brazil. Then claims surfaced that he and other leaders of the ruling Workers_ Party (PT) were orchestrating a scheme to bribe allies in return for congressional support. Few Brazilians believed that Mr Dirceu, who resigned, would be charged, let alone convicted or jailed in a country where impunity for politicians has long been the norm. But on November 15th the supreme-court president, Joaquim Barbosa, issued warrants for the arrest of Mr Dirceu and 11 others among the 25 found guilty last year of, variously, bribery, money-laundering, misuse of public funds and conspiracy, in a case known to Brazilians as the mensal__o (big monthly stipend).

Sharing Mr Dirceu_s Bras__lia prison cell are Jos__ Genoino and Del__bio Soares, formerly the PT_s president and treasurer respectively. Henrique Pizzolato, a former director of the state-controlled Banco do Brasil, guilty of laundering some of the money, quietly fled to Italy, where he also has citizenship, some weeks ago. Authorities there have hinted that his extradition would be more likely if Brazil rethought its 2010 decision to shelter Cesare Battisti, an Italian bomber facing a life sentence.

In Brazil lawmakers can be tried only by the supreme court. But the legal system is loophole-ridden, allowing appeals even against that court_s rulings. In September, 12 of the defendants successfully appealed for retrials of money-laundering and conspiracy charges, on the grounds that the guilty verdicts were reached by slim majorities. With two new members among the 11 justices, acquittal on those charges is possible, shaving several years from sentences. But the court recently dismissed another flurry of arcane appeals as _merely delaying tactics_. That allowed Mr Barbosa to issue his warrants.

Many PT activists regard the convictions as having been whipped up by the media and by conservative elites. Mr Dirceu, who was detained without trial by Brazil_s dictatorship in the 1960s, says he is once again a political prisoner. Brazil_s establishment press has indeed covered the mensal__o more exhaustively than scandals in states governed by the centrist opposition. But by corrupting the workings of democracy it was arguably more shocking. After a decade in power, the PT is hardly an underdog. Most of the judges who tried the case were appointed by Lula or his PT successor, Dilma Rousseff.

The biggest difference between the mensal__o and other cases is that punishment followed crime far more rapidly. Natan Donadon, a centrist congressman convicted in 2010 of stealing millions in public funds in the 1990s, went to jail only this year. It remains to be seen whether the mensal__o case was an exception or the new norm in Brazil_s halting progress towards equality before the law.

the Economist |

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