On Thursday, April 6, Brazil’s Supreme Federal Tribunal denied former President Luiz Inacio Lula de Silva a writ of habeas corpus and ordered that he present himself to authorities the following day, despite ongoing appeals to his case. This decision raises troubling questions about prosecutorial and judicial impartiality, as well as the independence of Brazil’s democratic institutions. Human rights groups in the hemisphere have raised these serious concerns, many of which the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) shares.
The Lava Jato (“Car Wash”) investigation, a money laundering probe initiated in 2014 in Brazil, has revealed deep corruption in the country and throughout Latin America. It has implicated hundreds of Brazilian officials and political leaders from various political parties, and it has led to investigations and prosecutions against presidents and senior officials in Peru and elsewhere. It has been an important investigation. Using innovative techniques, the Car Wash probe exposed how politicians illegally used business relationships for personal enrichment and to fund political campaigns, in exchange for awarding contracts and exchanging favors with certain economic elites.
Because corruption investigations address the links between business or criminal groups and politicians and state officials, investigations can run the risk of being used for political gain or perceived as politicized, targeting some officials or parties more than others. It’s important that investigators maintain impartiality, and that they seek to preserve the appearance of impartiality.
While the Car Wash investigation reflects important anti-corruption work in Brazil, the prosecution and now imprisonment of former President Lula da Silva raises serious concerns about prosecutorial and judicial impartiality. At a moment when the investigations have implicated dozens of Brazilian political leaders, including the current president, members of his cabinet, and deputies in the national congress, the prosecution of Lula has advanced more quickly while cases involving other political figures have stalled, and politicians from the opposition accused of more serious crimes remain free. The former president, convicted of accepting a beachfront apartment in return for steering construction contracts, has asserted his innocence, and has been jailed while pursuing appeals. This past week, a divided Brazilian Supreme Court, in a 6 to 5 ruling, affirmed a controversial lower court order sending Lula to jail while he pursued appeals.
The decision to jail Lula is particularly troubling because he is once again a presidential candidate in elections that will take place in November of this year. Polls show him leading above all other candidates by an approximate two-to-one margin. While corruption investigations need to run their course, and no one should be above the rule of law, it is difficult to avoid the perception that Lula has been targeted by his political opponents.
This would be troubling under any circumstances, but it is particularly troubling in Brazil at this moment. President Dilma Rousseff, Lula’s successor and another member of the Workers’ Party (PT) was impeached and removed from office two years ago, on charges that involved mishandling budget issues. Rousseff did not profit personally, as did some of her critics in government who have remained untouched.
While the impeachment followed the formal constitutionally prescribed process, it was deeply polarizing and widely criticized as motivated by narrow political interests.
Rousseff’s impeachment undermined the faith of PT supporters and many others in Brazil’s political process. Lula’s indictment, and now imprisonment, reinforces those concerns.
All of this takes place at a moment when democratic institutions in Brazil are fragile, and politically motivated violence is on the rise. In March, shots were fired at a campaign caravan supporting Lula, and on the night of March 14th, Marielle Franco, a Rio City council member and well-known activist for Afro-Brazilian rights and an outspoken critic of police abuse, was assassinated. The Brazilian military has been deployed in Rio de Janeiro to address crime and insecurity, and military officials have demanded “guarantees to be able to act without the risk of a new truth commission arising”. Equally worrisome, on April 3, in an interview about Lula’s potential return to power, retired Army General Luiz Gonzaga Schroeder Lessa declared, “If there is so much betrayal and change of law, then I have no doubt that the only resource is an armed reaction. It is the Armed Forces’ duty to restore order.” His statement has been echoed by a number of active duty military officers who have commented on the role of the Armed Forces as protectors of the constitution and as “the guardian” of Brazil.
As the Summit of the Americas approaches, it is important that regional bodies re-affirm the importance of civilian government, democratic institutions, impartiality and respect for judicial norms.