Brazil descended deeper into political chaos Thursday after a federal judge moved to block the swearing in of former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva as chief of staff to the current president, Dilma Rousseff.
Lula was sworn into the cabinet-level post Thursday morning, gaining immunity that would shield him from federal corruption charges.
Rioting erupted across the country Wednesday after a prosecutor released about 50 audio recordings gathered as part of the investigation into corruption and political payoffs involving Petrobras, the state-owned oil and gas giant.
A secretly recorded phone call between Lula and Rousseff “suggests his appointment to a ministerial position on Wednesday was motivated by a desire to avoid prosecution in Brazil’s worst-ever corruption scandal,” the Guardian reported.
About 700 senior Brazil officials including cabinet ministers enjoy “special judicial standing,” the New York Times said. They can be tried only by Brazil’s highest court, the Supreme Federal Tribunal.
But a federal judge Thursday in Brasilia, Itagiba Catta Preta Neto, issued an injunction to preliminarily suspend Lula’s swearing-in, CNN reported. The judge said Lula’s appointment prevented the “free exercise of the Judiciary Power, the operation of the Federal Police, and of the Federal Prosecutor’s Office.”
Brazil’s attorney general said he’ll appeal the judge’s decision, state-run news service Agencia Brasil reported.
Prosecutors were preparing corruption charges against Lula. He was detained for questioning earlier this month after police raided his home and offices. Prosecutors allege he received luxury real estate and big speaking fees from companies involved in the Petrobras scandal.
After Rousseff announced her plan Wednesday night to appoint Lula chief of staff, protesters in São Paulo, Brasília, Belo Horizonte, and other major cities demanded her resignation and Lula’s arrest.
Shruti Shah, a contributing editor of the FCPA Blog and the vice president for programs and operations at Transparency International-USA, said Thursday:
Giving a former president a job that may provide a high level of immunity from prosecution just as a corruption investigation into his past picks up speed sends the wrong message.
She called Lula an important leader in Brazil as a former head of state.
“He has the power to help his party and country without becoming a minister. Corruption is Brazil’s biggest problem right now and the most important ingredient needed to make progress in the fight against corruption is to end impunity,” Shah said.
Riot police in Brasília Wednesday night fired tear gas and stun grenades at more than 5,000 demonstrators outside the presidential palace and congress building, according to the Guardian.
Richard L. Cassin is the publisher and editor of the FCPA Blog. He can be contacted here.