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Brazil impeachment drive accelerates, Lula fights back

Published on 21/03/2016

Brazil's struggling leftist government was battling on two fronts Monday as impeachment proceedings resume against President Dilma Rousseff and legal battles plague her predecessor, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

Rousseff’s presidency appears to be in peril as she fights impeachment, protests, recession and scandal, and her decision to call Lula to the rescue backfired last week when a judge blocked his nomination as chief of staff over pending corruption charges.

A congressional impeachment committee was to hold its second session Monday to weigh allegations that Rousseff fudged the government’s accounts to boost public spending during her 2014 re-election campaign and downplay bad news on the Latin American giant’s sinking economy.

Lula, a left-wing icon tarnished by corruption charges, meanwhile is fighting a Supreme Court injunction blocking his political comeback — and the ministerial immunity that comes with it.

Lula (2003-2011) faces money-laundering charges linked to a multi-billion-dollar corruption scandal at state oil company Petrobras.

Prosecutors have requested his arrest — a threat he will escape if he can get the courts to let him take up his cabinet post, since ministers can only be tried before the Supreme Court in Brazil.

Lula’s lawyers appealed Sunday to the Supreme Court to annul a ruling by one of its judges suspending his appointment and sending his case back to criminal court.

His foundation, the Lula Institute, lashed out at what it called a “series of arbitrary actions” by the judiciary.

It condemned Lula’s detention for questioning earlier this month as “violent, coercive… and baseless,” and said the request for his arrest is “arbitrary” and “unconstitutional.”

Until the Supreme Court reaches a final ruling on Lula’s appointment, he risks being placed in preventive detention by the crusading anti-corruption judge leading the investigation, Sergio Moro.

The court is not due to reconvene until March 30.

– Petrobras tallies damages –

The Petrobras investigation chalked up its first international arrest as Portuguese police arrested a businessman wanted in Brazil on charges of bribing corrupt executives at the oil company.

Portuguese-Brazilian national Raul Schmidt Felipe Junior was arrested at a Lisbon apartment “where he had been hiding out for months,” a source close to the investigation told AFP.

Lula and Rousseff are starting the week under the cloud of explosive accusations made at the weekend by a former ally charged in the Petrobras case.

Senator Delcidio do Amaral, a former congressional leader for the ruling Workers’ Party, said in an interview that Lula masterminded the graft scheme, and that Rousseff “knew everything” and used some of the proceeds to fund her presidential campaigns.

Investigators say Petrobras execs colluded with contractors to overbill the oil company by some $2 billion over the course of a decade, bribing politicians and political parties to keep the scheme going.

Petrobras, which has been devastated by the scandal, will report its 2015 annual results Monday after the markets close. It lost $7.2 billion in 2014.

– Impeachment gains momentum –

Brazilian politics has been upended by the scandal, after 13 years of dominance by the Workers’ Party.

The crisis has triggered angry protests laying bare sharp divisions in the country of 200 million people.

Mass rallies for and against Rousseff rocked Brazil last week, just months before the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro in August.

The impeachment case against Rousseff, which is separate from the corruption scandal, meanwhile appears to be gaining momentum.

A poll released Saturday found 68 percent of Brazilians now favor impeaching Rousseff — up eight percentage points from February.

Another poll Sunday found the congressional impeachment committee is almost evenly split: 32 members favor impeachment, 31 are against and two are undecided.

Taking the lower house as a whole, 62 percent of lawmakers think Rousseff will be removed from office — nearly triple the last poll, in February.

The committee is tasked with making a recommendation to the full Congress on whether to impeach.

A vote by two-thirds of the 513 lawmakers in the lower house and half the 81 senators would trigger an impeachment trial in the Senate.

In that event, Rousseff would be suspended from her duties for up to 180 days.

A two-thirds vote would remove her from office.