Cutouts of politicians dressed as prisoners used during a protest against corruption. (Ueslei Marcelino / Courtesy Reuters)
Last month, Brazil's Supreme Court sentenced José Dirceu -- the chief of staff and closest political adviser to former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva during his first administration (2003-2006) -- to nearly ten years in jail. At the same time, the court convicted 25 other co-conspirators in Dirceu's scheme, which involved bribing congressmen to vote in lockstep with the government, and also implicated banks, advertising agencies, and politicians. The court estimated that the scheme involved the embezzlement of at least $150 million in public funds. The case is part of the Brazilian judicial branch's recent campaign against political corruption, a development that has unleashed public enthusiasm for the justice system.
The trial lasted for four months, and its sessions were televised daily. On some days, as many people tuned in to the proceedings as tuned in to Brazil's popular teledramas. At first, Lula tried to stay aloof from the trial, maintaining that he had been "betrayed" by the defendants and that he "knew nothing" about the scheme. Later, when the Supreme Court handed down its ruling, Lula said that the charges were simply an attempt to discredit his party and him.
That is unlikely. When he was sentenced to more than 40 years in jail, Marcos Valerio, an advertising executive and a principal in the scheme, told prosecutors that Lula had personally authorized him to borrow money from banks. Lula's party used the funds to buy off members of congress. In light of the revelation, Justice Joaquim Barbosa, the head of the Brazilian judiciary, who became an instant hero during the proceedings for his lucid arguments for conviction, said that he wanted public prosecutors to open a new investigation into Lula's role. Lula has denied Valerio's charges, but an investigation could nevertheless take place. Indeed, on returning from his New Year's holiday, Roberto Gurgel, Brazil's chief public prosecutor, announced that he had ordered a formal