by Iain Bruce
teleSUR | July 14, 2017
Brazil’s former President Luiz Ignacio Lula da Silva has just been sentenced to nearly ten years in prison, in the first of five cases against him that involve charges ranging from obstruction of justice to influence peddling and money laundering.
Lula, as he is widely known, denies any wrongdoing.
Both he, his lawyers and his supporters, have repeatedly argued that the accusations against him are fabricated and part of a campaign to prevent him running again for president in elections scheduled for October 2018.
Lula left office at the beginning of 2011 with a popularity rating of around 80 percent. He remains one of the most popular politicians in Brazil.
Several polls have suggested that if presidential elections were held now, Lula would win.
So what exactly are these accusations against Lula?
On Wednesday, Judge Sergio Moro, who has been spearheading Brazil’s sprawling corruption investigation known as Operation Car Wash, found Lula guilty of accepting bribes from the engineering firm OAS in the form of a beachfront apartment in Guaruja.
The judge said the apartment was worth a total of US$691,000, including an extensive renovation undertaken to Lula and his late wife Marisa Leticia’s specifications.
Lula’s defense team have presented a number of documents they say prove that the property is owned by OAS and has never been owned by Lula or any of his relatives.
Judge Moro dismissed these, saying the fact the apartment was not in Lula’s name only meant that he and OAS had conspired to conceal the true ownership.
Lula says he and his wife were indeed thinking of buying the apartment, but that he visited it only once, in 2014. He says his wife visited several other times, but they then decided not to buy it. He says he has never slept in the apartment.
Moro’s case seems to rely chiefly on testimony from a former OAS executive, Leo Pinheiro, given as part of a plea bargain after he was arrested on other charges.
He also cited more circumstantial evidence from a number of other witnesses, like a concierge at the building who said that “everyone knew” the apartment belonged to the former president.
Lula’s lawyers argued that such evidence was unreliable, and insisted that the judge had not produced a single shred of concrete or documented evidence of his guilt.
They too pointed to circumstantial evidence from other witnesses that favored their case: neighbors of the apartment who said they had never seen Lula and his wife there, or only seen them once; or the contractor in charge of renovating the apartment, who said he had been under the impression that the apartment did not belong to the president – he recalled Maria Leticia visiting once and marveling at the view, from which he understood that it was the first time she had been there.
The defense team also questioned the logic of Judge Moro’s case that the apartment was a kickback for contracts awarded to OAS in the construction of the Abreu Lima oil refinery in northeastern Brazil. Those contracts go back to 2009. They argue that it would be strange, to say the very least, for the payback to come only four of five years later, when Lula had long ceased to be president.
So what happens next?
Judge Moro did not request Lula’s immediate imprisonment, so he cannot be sent to prison to serve his sentence until it is confirmed by a higher court, probably Regional Federal Court No 4, or TRF-4, in the southern city of Porto Alegre.
Until that happens, Lula also remains eligible to stand for the presidency. It is uncertain when his appeal will be heard.
There are several legal procedures that his lawyers can pursue before going to the TRF-4, and in the past similar cases have often taken over a year-and-a-half. However the senior judge at the TRF-4 has said there will be a ruling before the 2018 elections.
If the higher court confirms Lula’s conviction before the elections, but after he has registered as a candidate, Lula could have his candidacy struck down, but that is not certain.
If the conviction were confirmed after Lula had stood and won the presidency, then the Constitution says the case against him should be suspended. But if that were to happen, it would probably lead to an almighty battle in the courts.
In any event, Lula made clear after the conviction that if anyone thought this was the end of Lula, they were making a big mistake.
Lula is also the subject of several investigations that have not yet produced formal charges, and no dates have been set for any possible trials.
In October 2016 – Lula was accused of involvement in an alleged bribery scheme related to work done by Odebrecht, in the southern African country of Angola.
It’s claimed he used his influence to secure financing from Brazil’s development bank for the company’s projects there.
The firm is said to have paid US$9.31 million to Lula and others in return.
But as in previous corruption cases involving Lula’s Workers’ Party, the assumption here is that any alleged bribes wouls have gone towards buying political support rather than personal enrichment.
In July 2016 – Lula was accused of conspiring to buy the silence of a former Petrobras director, Nestor Server who was arrested a year earlier as part of the Operation Car Wash Investigation
In Feb 2016 – Brazil’s federal police included Lula in an investigation into the possible use of bribes to influence the passage of legislation benefiting the auto sector.
It’s part of a probe known as “Operation Zealots” which originally looked into illegal payments to lower-level tax collectors.
The Federal Police estimate that the funds embezzled may amount to more than US$4.9 billion.