Latin America & Caribbean

Will Brazil's 'Mensalao' corruption trial bring change?

Image of convicted politician Jose Dirceu wearing prison clothes is held by a protester outside the Supreme Court headquarters in Brasilia, Brazil, on 3/8/12 Image copyright AFP
Image caption Jose Dirceu, Lula's former chief of staff, was found by the court to have played a crucial role in the corruption scheme

When, four months ago, Brazil's Supreme Court began to judge one of the largest political scandals in the country's recent history, many wondered if the trial could really deliver a decisive blow against corruption.

As the case approaches its end, a total of 25 out of 37 defendants have been convicted, some of them key political figures.

There is still room for those who were convicted to appeal, but few think the court will change its ruling and absolve them.

It has led some to say that the culture of impunity in Brazil for those who abuse their power and influence may be drawing to an end.

At the heart of the case, dubbed Mensalao or "big monthly payment", was an allegation that politicians from coalition parties were paid to support the minority government of then-President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva after he took office in 2003.

Conspiracy and bribery

Those found guilty include several former congressmen and, most notably, Jose Dirceu, who was Lula's chief of staff.

Dirceu was convicted of orchestrating the scheme and was sentenced to almost 11 years in prison for conspiracy and bribery.

That such a powerful political figure, once considered a potential successor to Lula, could be convicted, was for many Brazilians a truly striking development.

Some analysts say the fact the case went to trial, and most of the defendants were convicted, makes it a breakthrough in Brazilian history.

But others doubt the results will be enough to fundamentally alter the culture, and that corruption will continue to be widespread.

Just last month another political scandal came to light when Brazilian federal police announced they were investigating 18 government officials who allegedly favoured private groups in public deals.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Presiding judge Joaquim Barbosa has been portrayed by parts of the Brazilian press as a hero

One of the suspects, Rosemary de Noronha, had been working as chief of staff in the regional office of the Brazilian presidency in Sao Paulo since 2003.

Mrs Noronha, who was sacked after the allegations first emerged, was portrayed in the Brazilian press as an influential figure said to have exploited her close friendship with Lula.

She has not yet responded to the allegations.

Legal loopholes

For some analysts, the latest scandal shows the country still has a long way to go in tackling corruption, despite the outcome of the Mensalao trial.

"I think [Mensalao] will be a watershed, but it doesn't yet suggest that Brazil has found a good way to solve the problems of corruption," says Prof Matthew Taylor of the American University in Washington DC.

"In effect, it suggests that the courts remain a crucial bottleneck."

Mr Taylor says Brazil's legal system allows a number of manoeuvres, appeals and delays that favour those who can afford good lawyers.

And even after a conviction, he says, there are many legal tools to help individuals avoid jail.

The Mensalao case came to light in 2005, taking seven years to get to trial.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Some believe Lula, here with Jose Dirceu, is unlikely to see his reputation badly damaged by the scandal

The sessions were broadcast on television on an almost daily basis, and the judge who oversaw the process, Joaquim Barbosa, was portrayed by elements of the Brazilian press as a "hero".

The justices examined allegations that, between 2003 and 2005, during Lula's first term, the governing Workers' Party (PT) diverted public money to buy political support in Congress.

Cultural change?

Four months after the trial began, the judges are resolving some final issues while the first verdict on their judgement is also being delivered.

As the court is suspended between 20 December and 1 February, many think the trial will conclude only next year.

Lula was not implicated in the case and has denied any knowledge of the scheme. He has not commented on its outcome.

He is still one of the most popular politicians in Brazil, whose government is credited with achieving a significant reduction in the country's poverty rates over the last decade.

"I think his legacy will of course be tainted, but the deeper legacy that he is admired for abroad, of social change, isn't really hurt by this," says Mr Taylor.

In recent municipal elections in October, the trial did not prevent the Workers' Party candidate from winning the important post of mayor of Sao Paulo, Brazil's largest city and a traditional opposition stronghold.

Critics doubt the case will have the impact that has been suggested.

"On the one hand, this trial is historic. But, on the other hand, it will have a very little impact in terms of cultural change," says Ricardo Caldas, a political scientist at the University of Brasilia.

He says, for example, that Dirceu, will remain influential.

"If he goes to jail, he will make his calls from there."

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