Key Brazilians in Graft Case Must Go to Jail, Court Says.
By SIMON ROMERO - November 14, 2013
The decision by the Supreme Federal Tribunal, made Tuesday night after deliberations in the capital, Brasília, came in response to a request by Brazil’s prosecutor general that the convicted officials should begin serving their sentences.
More than 20 people, including top legislators, senior governing party figures, officials at Banco do Brasil and businessmen, were originally sentenced more than a year ago.
Pointing to the potential for the ruling to provide a precedent in other corruption cases, Ivar Hartmann, a law professor at Fundação Getúlio Vargas, a top Brazilian university, called the decision a “historic moment for the Brazilian legal system and for the stability of institutions in Brazil.”
If the prison terms actually materialize, such a development would be a rare example in which politicians go to prison in Brazil after being found guilty of their crimes. The same court decided in September that it would allow a new round of appeals in the trial, a ruling that may still allow some of the convicted figures in the scandal to wriggle out of hard jail time.
Confusion persisted Thursday as to exactly when the political figures would go to prison, though legal experts said the imprisonments could happen as early as next week, barring other surprise developments. The chief justice of the court, Joaquim Barbosa, is expected to issue the imprisonment orders, leaving it up to a separate court in Brasília to carry them out.
The most powerful figure in the scandal, José Dirceu de Oliveira e Silva, who was chief of staff for Brazil’s former president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, was vacationing at an exclusive beach in Bahia State when the high court made its decision. His lawyer said Thursday that he had returned to his home in São Paulo and was ready to turn himself in to the authorities.
Still, many Brazilians expressed a mixture of surprise and bewilderment at the prospect of such figures going to jail.
“We haven’t seen them in prison yet; in the meantime it’s as though they were in a luxurious mansion,” said Lindalva Santos, 38, a fruit stall vendor in Rocinha, a sprawling slum in Rio de Janeiro. “This should have been seen a long time ago.”
The landmark corruption case raised hopes that Brazil’s legal system could act independently of other branches and provide accountability in what has been called the country’s largest corruption scandal.
In the case of José Dirceu, as he is commonly known in Brazil, he was sentenced to almost 11 years in prison for orchestrating the vote-buying scheme, called the mensalão, or big monthly allowance, after the payments made to lawmakers for their votes.
Since the prison terms ordered by the high court apply only to crimes in which defendants are not eligible for a new round of appeals, José Dirceu is expected to be granted somewhat relaxed prison conditions, allowing him to leave during the day to work and return to prison at night to sleep.
In making their ruling, justices pointed to structural aspects in Brazil’s judiciary that made it far more likely for the poor to go to prison than the rich and powerful, especially in relation to drug-related offenses.
“We have thousands of people sentenced for small quantities of marijuana, and very few people sentenced for immense crimes,” said one justice, Luís Roberto Barroso. “To be jailed in Brazil you have to be very poor and defended very poorly. The system is selective, almost of castes.”