Brazil Senate toughens punishments for corruption

Julia Carneiro reports from Belo Horizonte as police tackle protesters with tear gas

Brazil's senate has approved a bill which will toughen the punishment for corrupt practices.

Under the new law, corruption will be considered a "heinous crime" and those found guilty will not be eligible for parole or amnesty.

The bill is the latest of a series passed as Brazil continues to be rocked by mass rallies demanding reforms.

It still needs to be approved by the chamber of deputies and signed off by the president.

Tougher sentences

The bill, which was first proposed in 2011, increases the minimum prison sentence for corruption from two to four years.

The maximum sentence stays the same at 12 years.

It will apply to government officials who take advantage of their job to demand favours and to those who embezzle public funds.

It will also apply to individuals or institutions who offer bribes to officials.

Brazil has seen a number of high-ranking officials convicted of corruption over the past year.

In the largest scandal, called Mensalao, more than two dozen people were convicted for setting up a scheme that used public funds to pay coalition parties for political support.

Several were top politicians of the governing Workers Party (PT).

Reform fever

The vote comes a day after Congress rejected a constitutional amendment which had been a key grievance of protesters.

The protesters argued that the amendment would have made it more difficult for federal prosecutors to investigate crimes, opening the door to more corruption.

Congress also voted to use all the royalties from newly discovered oilfields for education and health.

Some of the largest oil finds in recent years have been discovered off the Brazilian coast, and the country is expected to be able to produce tens of billions of barrels of crude oil over the coming decades.

In another attempt to pacify protesters, the government also promised to speed up the pace of reform.

It said it would simplify a referendum to establish a constituent assembly - proposed on Monday by President Dilma Rousseff - to allow for a vote as early as 7 September.

Local governments have also passed reforms in an effort to quell protests, with more than a dozen cities reversing public-transport fare increases.

Despite the reforms, about 50,000 protesters marched in the streets of Belo Horizonte on Wednesday demanding more spending on education and health, and a crackdown on corruption.

They also complained about the high cost of the 2014 World Cup, which Brazil will host.

The protesters marched to the stadium where Brazil were playing Uruguay in the semi-final of the Confederations Cup, a dress rehearsal for the World Cup.

About 20 people were detained when a small group tried to push past police lines surrounding the venue.

On Thursday, the city of Fortaleza will be hosting the second semi-final between Spain and Italy.

Protests have been planned for Thursday in more than a dozen cities across Brazil, including in Fortaleza, Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo.

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