Brazil's biggest ever bribery trial began on Thursday with dozens of former officials facing vote-buying charges in a case that could tarnish the legacy of popular ex-leader Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.
BRASILIA – Brazil's biggest ever bribery trial began on Thursday with dozens of former officials facing vote-buying charges in a case that could tarnish the legacy of popular ex-leader Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.
In what the media has dubbed "the trial of the century," 38 former ministers, lawmakers, businessmen and bankers face prosecution before the Supreme Court over alleged vote-buying in Congress between 2002 and 2005.
Supreme Court Justice Carlos Ayres Britto opened proceedings by naming each defendant and detailing the charges, which range from embezzlement and money laundering to corruption and fraud. Those found guilty face up to 45 years prison.
Known as "Mensalao" (big monthly payments), the scandal embroils senior members of Lula's Workers Party (PT) and Brazil's ruling coalition, but more broadly sheds light on the now-reviled practices of the entire political establishment.
Lula, the founder and leader of the leftist party who first took office in January 2003, is not among the defendants. He was followed in office by fellow PT member Dilma Rousseff in January 2011.
According to charges that first surfaced in 2005, during Lula's first term, PT members allegedly offered bribes to members of Congress in exchange for their votes.
Prosecutors allege that the bribe money was skimmed from the advertising budgets of state-owned companies through a company owned by businessman Marcos Valerio de Souza, one of the accused.
None of the 38 have been arrested, and none of them were in court. Lula, now 66 and recovering from throat cancer, said Thursday that he would not follow the proceedings. "The attorneys are the ones that have to be there," he told reporters in Sao Paulo.
The ex-president has maintained that he was betrayed and offered public apologies on behalf of the PT. The party denied any vote-buying or Mensalao payments in a statement ahead of the trial.
A lawyer for PT lawmaker Roberto Jefferson, who exposed the vote-buying scheme in 2005, said he would ask during the trial why Lula is not among the accused.
"It is a test for the Brazilian political system. Its credibility is at stake," said David Fischer, a political scientist at Brasilia University.
Those implicated include Lula's ex-chief of staff Jose Dirceu, ex-communications minister Luiz Gushiken, and ex-transportation minister Anderson Adauto, as well as nearly a dozen ex-legislators in the governing coalition.
Prosecutors believe that Dirceu, a 66 year-old lawyer, former PT leader and Lula's political enforcer during his first term in office, was the mastermind behind the corruption network. If found guilty, he faces at least 15 years prison.-AFP