Brazil judges play outsized role in politics amid crisis

  • AFP, Sao Paulo
  • Updated: Mar 21, 2016 15:21 IST
A demonstrator wearing a mask of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff rallies in support of her impeachment at Paulista Avenue, in Sao Paulo, Brazil. (AFP)

Rolling up the sleeves of their gowns, Brazil’s judges have been dropping one bombshell after another onto the political scene, drawing accusations from some of trying to further destabilize the crisis-hit government.

The explosive corruption investigation that has upended Brazilian politics all started two years ago, when a brash judge named Sergio Moro ordered the arrest of a money-changer and veteran con-man, Alberto Youssef, in a money laundering case.

In exchange for a lighter sentence, Youssef put Moro on the trail of what may be the biggest corruption scandal in Brazilian history, a multi-billion-dollar embezzlement scheme at state oil company Petrobras.

People hold signs reading "Sergio Moro --the federal judge in charge of Lava Jato operation-- is going to catch you" during a protest demanding the resignation of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, on March 13, 2016 in Porto Alegre, southern Brazil. (AFP)

From his base in the faraway southern city of Curitiba, Moro has worked his way steadily up the chain of command, eventually reaching into the highest corridors of power in the capital Brasilia.

The seemingly constant revelations of involvement by powerful politicians has fueled disgust with the government, already struggling in the face of the worst recession in 25 years.

Moro’s investigation, dubbed Operation Car Wash, has meanwhile made him a hero to the protesters who have poured into the streets demanding Rousseff’s departure.

A woman praised the chief investigating judge in the Petrobras scandal, Sergio Moro, as "Our national pride" during a protest at Copacabana beach in Rio de Janeiro on March 13, 2016. (AFP)

His profile rose even more last week when he successfully derailed Rousseff’s decision to name her predecessor, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, as her chief of staff despite his pending corruption charges in the Petrobras case.

Less than two hours after Lula’s nomination, Moro released a damning wire-tapped phone call suggesting the move was aimed at shielding the former president from arrest.

In the recording, Rousseff tells Lula she is sending him a document with his official appointment, to be used only “if necessary.”

The release of the tape fueled outraged cries that the president and Lula were scheming to get him ministerial immunity.

It also drew criticism from some legal scholars.

“Moro is using Operation Car Wash politically,” said Marilson Santana, a law professor at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro.

“That creates a precedent and encourages other conservative judges to do the same.”

Activists protest in front of the Palacio do Planalto presidential palace in Brasilia on March 17, 2016. Brazilian lawmakers relaunched impeachment proceedings against President Dilma Rousseff Thursday and a judge blocked her bid to bring her powerful predecessor into her cabinet, intensifying the political crisis engulfing her. (AFP)

Brazilian Watergate?

The day after Moro’s leak, the courts dropped yet more bombs.

Less than an hour after Rousseff swore Lula in, a judge in Brasilia suspended the appointment.

That ruling was overturned on appeal, only for another judge in Rio de Janeiro state to issue a similar one.

A game of judicial ping-pong ensued, ending -- for now -- with Supreme Court judge Gilmar Mendes blocking Lula from taking up his post pending a decision by the full court.

Lula challenged that ruling Sunday, lashing out at what he called an “intimidation” campaign by the courts.

Others in Brazil are also critical of what they see as judges interfering in politics.

“The needed fight against corruption can never advance by violating individual rights and the prevailing law,” said an editorial in leading newspaper Folha de Sao Paulo.

Defending himself, Moro stressed that the bugged phone did not belong to the president.

“And even the (president) does not have the absolute privilege to safeguard her communications, in this case captured by chance,” he said.

He cited the “well-known precedent” of the recordings that contributed to Richard Nixon’s downfall in the Watergate scandal -- “an example to be followed,” said the judge.

Activists protest in Brasilia on March 17, 2016. Brazilian lawmakers relaunched impeachment proceedings against President Dilma Rousseff Thursday and a judge blocked her bid to bring her powerful predecessor into her cabinet, intensifying the political crisis engulfing her. (AFP)

‘Republic of Curitiba’

Rousseff, who has condemned Moro’s methods, fired back that “in many parts of the world, anyone who spies on a president’s telephone goes to jail if he doesn’t have permission from the Supreme Court.”

Legal experts say the highly polarized political climate in Brazil is pushing judges to act aggressively.

“We’re in a difficult moment. Congress is backed into a corner because its leaders are under investigation, and the executive branch is completely discredited by an inefficient administration,” said lawyer Antonio Carlos de Almeida, who is representing one of the Petrobras accused, banker Andre Esteves.

“So the judiciary has become the strongest power,” Almeida added. “That’s very risky.”

Some also see political motives.

“Operation Car Wash had a clear objective: to make Dilma’s position untenable and eliminate Lula as a candidate for the 2018 elections,” said Santana.

Lula revealed his fear of the judges in one leaked phone call.

“Honestly, I’m scared of this ‘Republic of Curitiba,’ because a district judge can make anything happen in this country,” he said.

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