Brazil

Judicial coup

Print edition : March 02, 2018

Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (right) with impeached former President Dilma Rousseff at a rally to launch Lula’s presidential candidacy for the upcoming election in October, in Sao Paulo on January 25. Photo: NELSON ALMEIDA/AFP

Posters placed at a bus stop in support of former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in Brasilia on January 22. The posters read: “Lula innocent.” Photo: UESLEI MARCELINO/ REUTERS

Supporters of Lula at a rally in support of his candidacy for the 2018 presidential elections, in Porto Alegre on January 23. Photo: PAULO WHITAKER/ REUTERS

A Brazilian court’s judgment upholding a corruption conviction against Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who is most likely to win the upcoming presidential election if he is allowed to contest, is widely believed to be politically motivated.

THE decision of a Brazilian lower court in the third week of January to uphold a corruption conviction against the most popular politician in the country, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (Lula), did not come as a surprise. A hyperactive judiciary has succeeded in upending Brazilian politics in the last three years. Because of judicial overreach, a popularly elected President, Dilma Rousseff, was unjustly evicted from office in August 2016. She was succeeded by her Vice President, Michel Temer, against whom there were verifiable charges of corruption. He continues in office with the support of lawmakers who refuse to impeach him despite tangible evidence of corruption being presented on the floor of the legislature. The architect of the impeachment process against Dilma Rousseff, Eduardo Cunha, is now languishing in prison. Cunha, the former Speaker of the House, has been convicted for receiving millions of dollars in bribes from the private sector.

Brazil will be going to the polls at the end of the year to elect a new President. Lula, the leader of the left-wing Workers’ Party, is the acknowledged front runner. He has already served two consecutive terms as President from 2003 to 2011 and had left office with an 83 per cent popularity rating. During his two terms in office, his policies rescued millions of Brazilians from poverty. He was the architect of a dynamic foreign policy which strengthened the country’s relationship with the African and Asian continents. Current opinion polls give him nearly 40 per cent of the vote, with his nearest rival getting less than half of that. After the judgment was pronounced by the lower court, there were widespread protests. Seventy thousand supporters of the Workers’ Party gathered in Porto Alegre, where the court hearing against Lula was held. After the verdict was read out, a massive demonstration was held in the town, with protesters carrying placards with the slogan, “An election without Lula is a Fraud.”

The three-member bench of the lower court sentenced Lula to a 12-year prison term. There was not even a pretence of impartiality on the part of the bench. One of the presiding judges praised Lula’s initial conviction before the trial began, saying that it was “technically irreproachable”. His chief of staff had already started circulating a petition calling for Lula to be sent to jail. Under the “ficha lipa” (clean record) law that was signed by President Lula in 2010, candidates convicted by an appeals court are ineligible to run for the presidency. The former President, however, is in a defiant mood. According to most observers, the charges against Lula are flimsy and politically motivated. Lula will be appealing all the way to the Supreme Court.

Speaking to the media after the surprise judgment, Lula told his supporters that Nelson Mandela too was sent to prison and “then he came back to become President of South Africa”. Lula, who first rose to prominence as a trade union leader fighting the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil between 1964 and 1985, said that his conscience remained clear. “I think that those who accuse me today are more worried than me because I have the peace of mind of those who are innocent,” Lula said. The Workers’ Party said in a statement that the Brazilian elites were “sadly mistaken” if they thought that the judgment signalled the end of Lula’s political career. “We won’t give up in the face of injustice,” it stated.

Lula was first found guilty of corruption by the federal magistrate Sergio Moro in July last year. Moro is a low-level magistrate leading “Operation Lava Jato” (Car Wash), a series of investigations into money laundering involving some of the biggest Brazilian companies such as the state-owned Petrobras, the construction giant Odebrecht, and the world’s biggest meat-packing company, JBS. The operation has ensnared many senior politicians cutting across party lines. The magistrate ruled that the former President had accepted illegal gratification in the form of a beachfront apartment from Odebrecht. The magistrate ruled that in exchange, Lula had helped the company get contracts from Brazilian public sector companies such as Petrobras. The magistrate, in his wisdom, concluded that Lula had hidden his ownership of the property and termed it a case of “money laundering”.

Moro was reprimanded by the country’s Supreme Court in 2016 for releasing wiretapped conversations between Lula and Dilma Rousseff and between Lula and his lawyers and close family members. In July 2017, Moro sentenced Lula to nine and a half years in jail on charges of passive corruption and money laundering. The same magistrate, hailed as an anti-corruption crusader by the Western media, has refused to arrest anyone from the conservative Brazilian Social Democratic Party (PSDB). Aecio Neves, the right-wing candidate who came second in the 2014 presidential election, was caught on videotape soliciting and accepting millions of dollars in bribes. Moro has refused to prosecute Neves so far.

Impeached on dubious charges

Dilma Rousseff was impeached on the dubious charge of using central bank funds to balance the budget in an election year. This is something that many governments do in an election year. It is anyway not an impeachable offence under the Brazilian Constitution. She described her ouster as a “coup” against democracy and said that the verdict against Lula was “the conclusion of the coup”. Gege da Silva, the leader of the Popular Movement Centre, said that “there was not a shadow of doubt that what happened in Brazil was a coup. And it’s a coup that continues to be enacted on a daily basis on the backs of the working class.”

Though some leaders of the Workers’ Party have been implicated in corruption, most of the serious charges are against the leaders of right-wing and centre-right parties. Many other former heads of state in Latin America have been implicated in bribery scandals relating to Odebrecht. The President of Peru, Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, narrowly avoided impeachment after damning proof emerged of his illicit connections with the company. A former Peruvian President, Alejandro Toledo, is fighting extradition to Peru from the United States. He is alleged to have taken $20 million in bribes from the company. Another former President, Ollanta Humala, is in jail in Lima, preparing to face trial on charges of receiving illicit campaign funding from Odebrecht.

Shaky evidence

Lula has denied ownership of the flat alleged to have been gifted to him by Odebrecht. There is no evidence that the flat was either owned or even rented by Lula or his family. The property continues to be in the name of the company. The case against Lula is based solely on evidence given by a former employee of Odebrecht, Jose Adelmario Pinheiro Filho, who was arrested in the Operation Car Wash sweep three years ago. It is believed that he implicated Lula in order to get his prison sentence reduced by 80 per cent. The accelerated hearing of Lula’s case by the appeals court also gives cause for suspicion. Other pending cases were set aside so that Lula’s case could be heard on January 24. A Supreme Court justice, Luis Roberto Baroso, defending the move, said it was important that “in the name of judicial security and stability of the democratic game—to define very soon what the rules will be, who can be candidate”. It is clear that influential sections of the Brazilian establishment wanted Lula out of this year’s presidential election.

Lula’s lawyer, Cristiano Zanin Martins, described the judgment as a “political conviction” and pledged to fight on until justice prevailed. He said that the fight was not only for Lula but for all Brazilians “who believe that democracy and the rule of law must prevail”. The majority of Brazilians will not take it lying down if Lula is barred from running for the presidency. President Temer has also weighed in on the issue, saying that Lula should be allowed to run for the presidency. “If he is defeated politically, it is better than being defeated in the court,” Temer told the Folha de S. Paulo newspaper.

As things stand today, Lula is virtually a shoo-in for the presidency. Powerful vested interests will, of course, try their best to ensure that he does not contest. His nearest rival is a right-wing zealot, Jair Bolsonaro. During the impeachment proceedings against President Dilma Rousseff, he praised the military dictatorship’s torture of her. Dilma Rousseff was incarcerated and tortured by the military dictatorship in the early 1970s for her political activism. After getting elected to the legislature for the first time in 1992, Bolsonaro called for a return to military rule in Brazil. He is also notorious for his incendiary comments against black Brazilians, women and indigenous groups. Given his unabashed authoritarian style and nostalgia for military rule, many Brazilians think that he poses a threat to democracy. Brazil is the fourth biggest democracy in the world, but a recent opinion poll revealed that only 13 per cent were happy with the kind of democracy that has emerged after the end of military rule in the 1980s. The opinion poll also found that 97 per cent of Brazilians felt that their government catered only to the needs of the wealthy elite. However, another opinion poll showed that 42.7 per cent thought that Lula was being unfairly targeted by the judiciary and the Brazilian news media.

In the first week of February, Lula said in a televised address to delegates attending a meeting organised by the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, that the efforts to block him from running for election were only making him more popular among the electorate. “They know that if I am a candidate—against the media of my country, against the Brazilian elites—they know my chances of winning the election in the first round are absolute,” he said. Lula could not attend the conference as the lower court ordered the impounding of his passport. By the time the Supreme Court intervened and restored his passport, it was too late for Lula to reach in time for the FAO meeting. Lula told the delegates that it was possible to stop people from going hungry in the world. “Each country’s budget has to be designed placing the poor at its very core to be able to guarantee to them—as something sacred, something biblical—that to have breakfast, lunch and dinner is the most basic right every human being should have.”

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