Brazil’s Supreme Court annuls “Lava Jato” corruption convictions

Brazil’s Supreme Court overturned convictions against two high-profile figures targeted in the political corruption investigation known as “Lava Jato,” dealing a blow to the legacy of the investigation that shook Latin America’s largest democracy.

On Tuesday night, the court overturned a 2017 conviction against José Dirceu, a left-wing politician and former ally of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, on the grounds that a statute of limitations had expired.

A single judge from the country’s highest court also annulled sentences against industrialist Marcelo Odebrecht, who in 2016 was found guilty of crimes such as bribery and money laundering.

Taken together, the decisions are another nail in the coffin of Operation Lavajatou “Operation Car Wash,” which began in 2014 and uncovered a multimillion-dollar bribery scheme that diverted money from state oil company Petrobras.

According to investigators, a cartel of construction companies systematically paid bribes to Petrobras officials and executives in exchange for contracts, in what the U.S. Department of Justice once described as the “largest foreign bribery case in history.”

Dozens of politicians and businessmen were jailed, as Lava Jato won praise at home and abroad for exposing widespread corruption at the highest levels of Brazilian politics and business.

However, the methods used were described as inadequate by those targeted, while critics called it a politically motivated witch hunt against the country’s left.

A series of recent Supreme Court orders have threatened to roll back the investigation’s achievements, leading some to warn of a return to impunity.

Filipe Campante, an associate professor at Johns Hopkins University, said the latest rulings were “symbolic of the total defeat and reversal” of Lava Jato.

“Before Lavajato “It was completely unthinkable that some players were going to go to prison,” he added. “What these decisions seem to establish is that things have not changed.”

By three votes to two, the court on Tuesday annulled Dirceu’s conviction for receiving bribes between 2009 and 2012 from a company that had contracts with Petrobras. His lawyers argued that the conviction was invalid: he was over 70 years old at the time of the sentencing, which reduces the statute of limitations for the crime in half, to six years.

He had been sentenced to almost nine years in prison. Dirceu, who had multiple different convictions with prison sentences attached, spent time in and out of prison awaiting appeals, but is no longer behind bars.

Dirceu, a leftist activist in the 1960s, was deported by Brazil’s military dictatorship and sought exile in Cuba, where he underwent plastic surgery to alter his appearance so he could return to his homeland undetected.

The 78-year-old, once considered Lula’s right-hand man, has another pending corruption conviction that is being reconsidered by a separate court. If that conviction is also reversed, it could open the door for him to run for office.

One of the judges who voted in favor of the annulment, Ricardo Lewandowski, retired from his position and joined Lula’s government as Minister of Justice.

Marcelo Odebrecht’s eponymous family business, previously South America’s largest construction conglomerate, was identified by prosecutors as a key player at the center of the bribery scheme.

A lower court imposed a 19-year custodial sentence on the executive in 2016, which was later reduced, and he spent two years in prison before being placed under house arrest, which ended last year.

Those rulings were overturned on Tuesday by Judge Dias Toffoli. In the Odebrecht case he found that there was “collusion” between judges and prosecutors and that proper legal process had been ignored.

“It is clear that there was a mixing of procedural and judicial functions, eroding the foundations of the democratic criminal process,” the judge wrote in his ruling.

However, a plea deal reached between the scion of the construction dynasty and the anti-corruption task force remained intact. The company previously admitted to making illegal payments.

Last year, Toffoli quashed large amounts of evidence obtained during the Lava Jato investigation, saying investigators had “disrespected due legal process and acted with bias.”

In recent months, it has suspended fines for corruption scandals imposed as part of leniency agreements to Novonor (Odebrecht’s successor company) and J&F, the Batista family holding company, which controls the JBS meatpacker.

Anti-corruption activists said the latest rulings were detrimental to the rule of law in Brazil.

“The destruction of the fight against corruption in the country is relentless,” said the NGO Transparency International in X.

Its national director, Bruno Brandão, stated: “This further undermines the credibility of the judiciary in society, which has serious implications for democratic stability. Considering that these are cases that reach multiple jurisdictions, the Supreme Court of Brazil has clearly become a factor of insecurity for the international legal order.”

Lula, who previously ruled South America’s most populous nation between 2003 and 2010, was convicted of corruption and spent 580 days in prison.

However, his sentence was annulled by the Supreme Court in 2021 due to a jurisdictional technicality, allowing the former union member to successfully run for president again the following year.

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