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Brazil Top Court Permits Lula Aides to Appeal Prison Verdict

Sept. 18 (Bloomberg) -- Brazil’s Supreme Court today allowed former aides of the ruling party to appeal sentences in a cash-for-votes scandal, further delaying the conclusion of the highest-profile corruption case during 28 years of democracy.

Celso De Mello today became the sixth justice in the 11-member high court to vote in favor of granting defendants the right to appeal if they obtained at least four votes against the convictions in November. Jose Dirceu, cabinet chief during former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s first term, was previously sentenced to almost 11 years in prison on criminal conspiracy and corruption charges for his role in the scheme, dubbed mensalao, which means “big monthly payment” in Portuguese.

More than 1 million people demonstrated in June against corruption, poor public services and misallocation of public funds. The prospect of a drawn-out appeals process could lead the statute of limitations on some crimes to expire and sentences to be overturned after two new judges joined the court, frustrating protesters and renewing a sense of impunity in Latin America’s largest country, said Gil Castello Branco, founder of Open Accounts, a Brasilia-based watchdog of public spending.

“An appeal is a bucket of cold water for those who are fighting corruption in this country,” Castello Branco said in a telephone interview before the decision. “It reinforces widespread perception that justice is too slow to be effective.”

The Probe

Brazilian prosecutors opened the probe into the mensalao in 2005 after one of the scheme’s operators went public, and the Supreme Court began its trial in August 2012. Lula himself has been neither incriminated nor charged in the scandal.

The world’s second-largest emerging market ranked 69th among 176 countries in Berlin-based Transparency International’s 2012 study of corruption perceptions, worse than Rwanda and Georgia.

Chief Justice Joaquim Barbosa, the first to vote against the right to appeal in this case, has become the institutional face of a crusade against impunity, with masks of his visage sold as Carnival costumes. As today’s ruling came down, about 30 people protested outside the Supreme Court, some wearing masks and holding signs denouncing corruption.

Pizza Party

On Twitter, where the ruling quickly became the top trending topic in Brazil, one reader wrote “the Pizza is ready,” in reference to a popular expression to describe how even the most serious accusations of corruption against politicians end in a pizza party, in other words no punishment.

The ruling won’t generate new street protests, according to Paulo Sotero, director of the Brazil Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, said by phone.

“Some people may be frustrated, but I think this is an affirmation of rule of law in Brazil,” Sotero said today. “For the first time corrupt politicians have been accused of corruption, tried in a court of law, found guilty and, after this review of the sentencing, will start serving.”

Barbosa made the official announcement on the court’s decision this afternoon.

Only accusations that originally received at least four votes for acquittal will be reheard with new arguments and discussion, though no new evidence can be presented, according to Rafael Mafei, a professor at the University of Sao Paulo Law School. That corresponds to 12 of the 25 defendants, including Dirceu, who will remain in a semi-closed penal system until his conviction is resolved.

“I’d be surprised if this weren’t decided in the beginning of next year,” Mafei said by phone from Sao Paulo before today’s decision. “As a rule courts are slow, but the Supreme Court seems determined to get this case over with.”

To contact the reporters on this story: David Biller in Rio de Janeiro at dbiller1@bloomberg.net; Raymond Colitt in Brasilia Newsroom at rcolitt@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Andre Soliani at asoliani@bloomberg.net

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