Brazil’s biggest ever bribery trial began on Thursday with dozens of former officials facing vote-buying charges in a case that could tarnish the legacy of popular former Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.
In what the media has dubbed “the trial of the century,” 38 former ministers, lawmakers, businessmen and bankers face prosecution before the Supreme Court over alleged vote-buying in Congress between 2002 and 2005.
Brazilian Supreme Court Justice Carlos Ayres Britto opened proceedings by naming each defendant and detailing the charges, which range from embezzlement and money laundering to corruption and fraud. Those found guilty face up to 45 years in prison.
Britto quickly slapped down a defense claim that the court did not have jurisdiction in the case.
Known as mensalao (“big monthly payments”), the scandal embroils senior members of Lula’s Workers’ Party (PT) and Brazil’s ruling coalition, but more broadly sheds light on the now-reviled practices of the entire political establishment.
Lula, the founder and leader of the leftist party who first took office in January 2003, is not among the defendants. He was followed in office by fellow PT member Dilma Rousseff in January last year.
According to charges that first surfaced in 2005, during Lula’s first term, PT members allegedly offered bribes to members of Congress in exchange for their votes.
Prosecutors allege that the bribe money was skimmed from the advertising budgets of state-owned companies through a company owned by businessman Marcos Valerio de Souza, one of the accused.
None of the 38 accused have been arrested, and none of them were in court.
Lula, now 66 and recovering from throat cancer, said on Thursday that he would not follow the proceedings.
“The attorneys are the ones that have to be there,” he told reporters in Sao Paulo.
The ex-president has maintained that he was betrayed and offered public apologies on behalf of the PT. The party denied any vote-buying or mensalao payments in a statement ahead of the trial.
A lawyer for PT lawmaker Roberto Jefferson, who exposed the alleged vote-buying scheme in 2005, said he would ask during the trial why Lula was not among the accused.
“It is a test for the Brazilian political system. Its credibility is at stake,” Brasilia University political scientist David Fischer said.
Those implicated include Lula’s former chief of staff, Jose Dirceu, former Brazilian communications minister Luiz Gushiken and former Brazilian transportation minister Anderson Adauto, as well as nearly a dozen former legislators in the governing coalition.
Prosecutors believe that Dirceu, a 66-year-old lawyer, former PT leader and Lula’s political enforcer during his first term in office, was the mastermind behind the corruption network. If found guilty, he faces at least 15 years prison.
The opposition Brazilian Social Democratic Party (PSDB) said up to US$50 million was doled out in bribes.
However, a lawyer for Dirceu insists there were no payments.
“There was no so-called vote-buying,” the lawyer, Jose Luiz Oliveira Lima, told the daily O Globo on Wednesday.
“There is no proof of any use of public money. Dozens of witnesses categorically say that Dirceu had no knowledge of the loans and [money] transfers,” he said.
Earlier, Brazilian Attorney General Roberto Gurgel called the case “the most daring and outrageous corruption scheme and embezzlement of public funds ever seen in Brazil.”