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Sunday, December 9, 2012

CORRUPTION IN BRAZIL - A BLOW AGAINST IMPUNITY


Brazil's mensalão trial has brought many historic moments and last month saw one more: an impeccably well-connected politician getting such a long prison sentence that even the best lawyer will struggle to save him from doing time. On November 12th José Dirceu, who served as chief of staff for former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva from 2003 to 2005, was sentenced to ten years and ten months in jail for his part in the huge vote-buying scheme. Two other prominent members of the Workers' Party (PT) also received stiff sentences: Delubio Soares, its former treasurer, got eight years and 11 months in prison, and José Genoino, its former president, six years and 11 months.
It sometimes appears that the Brazilian criminal-justice system locks people up on a whim. Half the prison population has either not yet been tried or is awaiting a final verdict, and much of the other half committed non-violent property or drugs crimes. But for those with resources, it allows huge scope for delay, leeway on sentencing and almost unlimited appeals. The three men, along with the other 22 who have been found guilty of crimes such as money-laundering, corruption, embezzlement and misuse of public money, benefited from a rule known as "privileged forum" which says that top politicians can only be tried for crimes in higher courts. In this case, the Supreme Court, which normally deals with constitutional, not criminal matters, had to decide to take the case. That meant that though the scandal surfaced in 2005, the trial only started this year, in August.
Even now that the men are sentenced, there is more for their lawyers to do. Only long sentences definitely mean a spell under a "closed" regime—that is, one where the convict must stay during the day as well the night. For shorter ones, he can ask to be sentenced to an "open" regime. Anyone without a fancy lawyer probably won't even get to make the argument; anyone with one will almost certainly see it succeed. But a convict definitively sentenced to more than eight years must spend at least the first 18 months in a closed regime.
It is true that public pressure has probably played a part in toughening the Supreme Court's sinews (I don't say that’s a bad thing). And Brazil certainly does have some feisty anti-PT media outlets. But the accusation of anti-government bias is a bit rich, considering that Lula appointed quite a chunk of the current Supreme Court—including Joaquim Barbosa, who has consistently taken the hardest line against the mensaleiros.
In the weeks running up to the trial I asked dozens of people—pretty much everyone I talked to on any subject, and including people who were both violently pro- and anti-PT—what they thought it would bring. Quite a few were sure that legal manoeuvrings would somehow derail it; more thought that all the defendants would get off, independent of the rights and wrongs of the matter. A few people thought there might be jail sentences for peripheral characters. Not a single person thought that one of the political masterminds could possibly end up in jail. That the Supreme Court has overturned this glum certainty is surely a cause for celebration.
From The Economist – Adapted by Milton França

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