Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva is to stand trial on corruption charges. Photograph: Broadimage/Rex/Shutterstock
Judge who oversaw investigation into bribery and kickbacks at Petrobras and other major groups must assess if Workers’ party figurehead accepted bribes
The stage has been set for the most politically charged court case in Brazil’s modern history after a judge ruled that former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva must stand trial on charges of corruption.
Judge Sergio Moro – who has overseen the Lava Jato (Car Wash) investigation into bribery and kickbacks at Petrobras and other major corporations – must now assess allegations that the Workers’ party figurehead accepted 3.7m reais ($1.1m) in bribes
Lula denies the accusations, which he claims are an attempt to prevent him from running in the next presidential election in 2018.
The decision to go ahead with the trial – which will take place in the city of Curitiba – comes amid a period of intense political and economic turmoil, which has been exacerbated by the two-year Lava Jato investigation and a conspiracy to end 13 years of Workers’ party rule.
Last month, Lula’s successor president Dilma Rousseff was impeached and ejected from office less than halfway through her mandate on relatively minor charges of window-dressing state accounts ahead of the 2014 election.
Last week, Brazil’s congress expelled the politician who orchestrated that campaign, former speaker Eduardo Cunha, who is accused of accepting millions in bribes and stashing them in secret Swiss bank accounts.
New president Michel Temer has also been implicated in the scandal, three of his ministers have been forced to resign, and other senior figures in his ruling Brazilian Democratic Movement party (PMDB) are expected to come under more pressure in the weeks ahead.
Brazil’s major cities have witnessed sporadic, large and sometimes violent street protests for much of the past year, most recently focussed on a Fora Temer (Temer Out) campaign. The president is booed whenever he appears in public and has also divided the region. When he spoke at the United Nations on Tuesday, delegates from Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua and Costa Rica walked out in a sign that they refuse to recognise his legitimacy.
The trial of Lula could raise temperatures further. The former union leader has dominated the political landscape since he led the Workers’ party to its first presidential victory in 2002.
Prosecutors allege that he kept his party – and its allies, including Temer’s PMDB – in power with funds illegally obtained from over-inflated contracts from government-run companies, such as Petrobras.
Last week, public prosecutor Deltan Dallagnol, said Lula was the “kingpin” in the Petrobras scheme, which caused an estimated 42bn reais ($12.6bn) in losses.
“He was the conductor of this criminal orchestra,” Dallagnol said. “The Petrobras graft scheme aimed at keeping the Workers’ party in power by criminal means.”
Prosecutors also allege that Lula benefited through refurbishments carried out by construction companies at two properties. This is denied by the former president and his lawyers, who say he does not own the properties in question and has not even visited one of them.
Workers’ party supporters claim the Lava Jato investigation is politically biased and that most of those accused in other parties will not be held to justice. Underlining their fears, congressmen last night attempted to push through legislation that would grant sitting lawmakers amnesty.
The implications go far beyond the trial itself. Ana Claudia Farranha, a law professor at the University of Brasilia, said the legal case – although contentious – will distract Da Silva and complicate the next presidential election in which he is the frontrunner.
Ultimately, she said, it could lead to a realignment of political parties.
“The fence is closing around Lula,” said Farranha.
“As the investigations progress, Lula weakens. I think we will see big surprises for 2018 … I don’t think the PT (Workers Party) will disappear, but there will be a redefinition of party blocs.”