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Brazil: the trial of the century

The trial of Lula for alleged corruption opens on 24 January


São Paulo 21 January. Some are calling it the trial of the century.  The fate of the man who leads all the polls by a huge margin and could therefore be elected president of Brazil in October lies in the hands of three judges of the TRF4, the regional appeals court in Porto Alegre. Although the case will only be heard on Wednesday 24 January, police and army already patrol the area around the courthouse and thousands of PT militants will soon begin to converge on the city, travelling in 200 ‘caravans’ from all over the country.  Nearly 200,000 have signed a petition in support of Lula’s right to stand as a candidate in the 2018 election, denouncing this ‘political’ trial. Demonstrations during and after the trial are planned in many other major cities by pro- and anti-Lula organisations.
A committee to defend Lula and democracy is launched in Porto Alegre. Video: TVT network The mayor of Porto Alegre called on the armed forces to send troops, a request rejected by the defence minister as unnecessary, and the court president flew to Brasilia to tell the head of the supreme court that the judges had received death threats. Who was making the threats was not revealed. Lula resurrected the fact that the court president, Carlos Eduardo Thompson Flores Lenz, is a direct descendent of army colonel Tomas Flores who took part in the assault on Canudos in 1897 and was killed in battle. Canudos was the refuge of the sem terra (landless people) of the 1890s, and Lula asked if today’s Thompson Flores saw him as a citizen of Canudos and also wanted to stop his campaign. In fact, Thompson Flores is not one of the three judges who will take part in the session when the appeal against Lula’s sentence by the lower court judge Sergio Moro will be heard.

No proof against Lula

Judge Moro’s guilty verdict, with a sentence of 9 years and 6 months, has been questioned, not only by Lula’s defence, but by many other judges and jurists, who point to the lack of proof that Lula owned the triplex apartment, alleged to have been given to him as a bribe. Moro failed to show the connection between the Petrobras contracts obtained by OAS, and the alleged bribe, in the form of the triplex.
Lula speaking in September 2016 when Judge Moro first accepted the charges in this case. Euronews The accusation naming Lula was made by Leo Pinheiro, chairman of the engineering firm OAS, during a plea bargain negotiated while he was in prison, in order to reduce his sentence.  Coincidentally, just a few days ago, another judge in Brasilia included the same triplex as surety in a debt claim against the OAS, using the property register where the owner is shown to be not Lula, nor any member of his family, but OAS.

To run for President

Whatever the verdict, Lula will win. If he is acquitted, then he is free to run for the presidency. If the tribunal confirms Moro’s verdict, there will be a huge outcry against what will be seen  as a politically biased trial, and he will become Latin America’s most famous political prisoner. Lula’s lawyers would certainly then appeal, and under the Brazilian system, there are several more layers of justice before the sentence is final. It is unlikely he would be actually imprisoned until that happens. What is not clear is whether he would be able to stand in the elections, which will almost certainly happen before the appeals could be heard. Experts have offered different opinions. In addition, a further six cases are being brought against Lula, all equally flimsy, relying on circumstantial evidence and plea bargains, instead of hard evidence and concrete proof. For many analysts, to stop Lula from running when he is clear favourite, would lead to major unrest and radicalization. Like economist Luiz Gonzaga Belluzzo, who said:
The biggest risk for the climate of the elections is if Lula is prevented from running. This would increase the virulence of the debate in the social media and in the streets -economist Luiz Gonzaga Belluzzo
If he wins, there will also be radicalization, but, Belluzzo says, Lula is a conciliator, if he is elected, he will reach out to his adversaries. “The big obstacle will be the market, if they transform him into public enemy No. 1. ….. they have no long-term vision, no interest in development.”

The oligarchy is afraid

At a rally in São Paulo this week which brought together artists, singers, rappers, intellectuals, student leaders, homeless and landless leaders, speaker after speaker said that to defend Lula’s right to stand in the election is to defend democracy. “The oligarchy is afraid,” said lawyer Fabio Konder Comparato, “that’s the reason for this trial.” The charges brought against Lula were criticised at the rally as judicial persecution, judges practising politics, sentencing without proof. The date of the trial, 24 January was described as a ‘crossroads’ when the three judges would have the chance to bury ‘this judicial farce’. When Lula spoke, he said that Brazil had been anesthetized after the coup which removed Dilma, as the PT was blamed for all the country’s problems. “Only now”, he said, “are people waking up”. He reminded his audience that under his government scores of federal universities and technical colleges had been opened, and thanks to quotas and student funding, thousands had had the chance to study.  Millions had been lifted out of poverty.
What is at stake is national sovereignty, national pride. The elite want us to go back to having a vira lata (mongrel) complex. They don’t want poor, black people studying -Lula
An election without Lula is a fraudulent election, said Celso Amorim, former foreign minister. “to exclude Lula is to exclude the people”. The problem for the centre and the right is that so far they have been unable to produce a viable candidate. Jair Bolsanaro, second in the polls, is a maverick, without any backing from a large political party. Emotions are running high, because the stakes are high.

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Jan Rocha's Blog

Jan Rocha is a former correspondent for the BBC and the Guardian and lives in São Paulo, Brazil. She is the author of a number of LAB books, and contributes this regular column for LAB, known for its incisive analysis of current Brazilian politics.

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