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 investigation of Lula's role in the scheme.

Beyond the crack legal education that the trial gave a generation of television-watching Brazilians, its most important lesson was that Brazil's highest court would no longer tolerate blatant corruption among the country's political elites. Tellingly, although eight of the 11 Supreme Court justices who sat for the trial, including Barbosa, had been appointed by Lula or his successor, Dilma Rouseff, the majority toed Barbosa's strict line. "The law is the same for everyone, not just chicken thieves or poor kids in the slum," Barbosa said at one point. And a majority of the other justices seem to have concurred. 

The next few months, though, will tell whether the momentum against corruption is sustainable. For one, much of the public interest in the trial revolved around Barbosa. Like Lula, who rose from a blue-collar factory job to become president, Barbosa was born poor, in a town where slaves once dug for gold. The oldest of eight children, as a boy he helped his father, a mason, make bricks. He also made time for his studies, though, and attended university in Brasilia. After winning a competitive examination, he entered the foreign ministry and was posted in Europe. While in France, he continued his legal studies. He then became an investigative prosecutor at the Public Ministry where he was recognized as an eminent legal scholar. Barbosa was the first black person appointed to Brazil's highest court when Lula chose him; Lula, for his part, saw a political advantage to placing a minority on the highest court. 

The president did not expect his appointee to be so independent-minded. Barbosa's colleagues, however, recognized Barbosa's leadership in building a case for convictions during the political corruption scandal and named him president of the Supreme Court in November. He will lead the Brazilian judiciary for two years, until the end of 2014. Now a celebrity, Barbosa attracts crowds wherever he goes. Such public popularity for a judicial figure is unprecedented in Brazil.

Somewhat reassuringly, many of the principles Barbosa has been following appear to be shared by a majority on the court. And that is good news for the sustainability of the movement against corruption. At this point, it seems that investigations into the charges against Lula will move forward. If there is a solid case, the public prosecutor will bring it to the court. Meanwhile, there might finally be progress on another politically sensitive case that has been on the Supreme Court's docket for nearly ten years. It involves illegal campaign financing for the centrist Social Democratic Party, Brazil's major opposition party. Barbosa has said that he wants the Supreme Court to try the case as soon as possible -- and there is every reason to expect that he will.

To be sure, few Brazilians expect that a more active and independent judiciary could alone fix the country's deep corruption and ambivalence to the law. As one popular saying goes, "For your friends anything, for your enemies the law." Brazilians have not strongly believed that evenhanded law enforcement is an indispensable condition for a civilized, modern society. The public has tended to shrug off political corruption as a permanent feature of Brazilian public life; bribery has been accepted as a way to grease the wheels of a cumbersome bureaucracy. Officeholders who have amassed personal fortunes as they've built highways, housing projects, and other highly visible public works have been granted grudging admiration. "He steals, but he gets things done" has been a common refrain. 

But that attitude of leniency could be changing. The recent avalanche of scandals involving corruption at the highest levels of government has sharpened public awareness and shown just how intertwined national political parties, corruption, and organized crime have become. Meanwhile, a growing middle class (about 40 percent of the population) that pays heavy taxes is no longer as willing to tolerate the diversion of their money from social programs for health, education, and security to corrupt bosses. Public indignation over these abuses began to rise as the national media and a wide range of nongovernmental organizations launched effective online campaigns -- especially the "Basta" (Enough) campaign -- against corruption.

Responding to that public pressure, the Supreme Court decided to put on trial the politicians who had mounted the scheme to bribe congressmen. Now that the justices have given their verdict, Brazil's civil society will likely press for more; in 2011, some well-organized private groups waged a successful campaign to push congress to pass a new law disqualifying convicted criminals from standing for elected office. The law has yet to be implemented, though, and the current congress, which is controlled by Lula's party and its coalition allies, is resisting any Supreme Court-led attempts to meddle in electoral politics. Ultimately, it will be up to the voters to decide whether a convicted criminal should occupy a seat in congress or any elected office. Their next chance to do so will come in 2014, when Brazilians will select a president, state governors, and some new members of congress. The outcome of that vote is hard to predict, but the fact that voters will be taking up the issue at all is a major step forward for law and political accountability in South America's largest country.

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  • JUAN DE ONÍS is a former correspondent for The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times who lives in Brazil. He is the author of The Green Cathedral: Sustainable Development of Amazonia.
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