A judge indicts Brazil’s former president

The Economist, 02.08.2016
Charges against Lula hasten his remarkable downfall

 “I doubt that anyone in this country is more law-abiding than me,” says Brazil’s former president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. On July 29th a federal judge in the capital, Brasília, demurred—in startling fashion. He charged Lula and six other people with obstructing justice. The conspirators tried to pay a former executive of Petrobras not to co-operate with the investigation into a multibillion-dollar bribery scandal centred on the state-controlled oil company, prosecutors allege. The judge thinks the evidence is strong enough to warrant a trial.

The indictment hastens the remarkable downfall of this century’s most important Brazilian. Lula’s election in 2002 showed that a member of the working class, raised by an illiterate mother, could gain power democratically in a country marked by great economic inequality. As president from 2003 to 2010, he won adulation at home and renown abroad for reducing poverty and presiding over brisk economic growth. Lula’s global stature helped bring this month’s summer Olympic games to Rio de Janeiro.

But he has been caught up in a scandal that has implicated dozens of prominent politicians and businessmen. It has discredited the left-wing Workers’ Party (PT), which he founded and led. The popular fury aroused by the scandal provided the political passion that led to the impeachment of Lula’s successor as president, his protégée Dilma Rousseff. The senate is to try her later this month, ostensibly on charges that she manipulated government accounts. She has had to step aside until the trial is completed, leaving government in the hands of her vice-president, Michel Temer.

More charges may follow the indictment for obstruction of justice, which is based on testimony given by a disgruntled former PT senator, Delcídio do Amaral, in return for leniency. Prosecutors allege that Lula is “one of the principal beneficiaries of the crimes” at Petrobras. Investigators say that Lula, his family and an NGO he heads received “undue advantages” worth 30m reais ($9m) from construction firms. Those firms also made payments to the PT and its coalition allies in return for padded contracts with Petrobras. Lula’s alleged personal gains seem to have taken the form of refurbishments to property; investigators have not found bank accounts stuffed with cash. In March federal police briefly detained Lula for questioning.Brazilians have become so accustomed to revelations of wrongdoing that they treated Lula’s indictment almost as a non-event. Valor Econômico, the biggest business daily, did not see fit to mention it in its next edition. But the charge will have political consequences. It will further weaken the PT ahead of important local elections to be held in October. If Lula is convicted, and his conviction is upheld in a higher court by 2018, Lula would not be able to run in the presidential election to be held that year. Despite the scandal and his age (70), he remains the PT’s most effective vote-getter by far.

He and the other alleged conspirators (Mr do Amaral aside) deny wrongdoing. Lula claims that he, along with Ms Rousseff and the PT, is a victim of a political witch hunt. On July 27th he launched a website to defend “democracy, justice, development and social inclusion”—and his image. The next day, anticipating an indictment, he petitioned the UN Human Rights Committee to intervene, accusing Sérgio Moro, the crusading federal judge in charge of the main Petrobras investigation, of “a lack of impartiality” and “abuse of power”. Awkwardly for Lula, a different judge indicted him first. Whatever the courts conclude, Lula is unlikely to reclaim his position at the pinnacle of Brazilian politics.

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