In Depth

Why Brazil’s jailed former president could be freed

Supreme Court overturns law that saw dozens jailed the largest corruption scandal in the country’s history

The Supreme Court of Brazil has voted to end mandatory imprisonment of convicted criminals after they lose their first appeal, in a politically charged move that could facilitate the release of jailed ex-president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

In a six-to-five ruling on Thursday, the court “reversed itself on an issue that has far-reaching implications for corruption cases and could affect thousands of inmates” including the former left-wing leader, says The New York Times.

Lula, as he is known, was president between 2003 and 2010, but was jailed last year following a major corruption investigation.

Despite this week’s ruling, he insists he will not leave prison until he receives full exoneration, and claims that the decision was “motivated by fear that prosecutorial and judicial improprieties in his case... will lead to the nullification of his conviction”, reports The Intercept new site.

So what is happening in Brazil and what will it mean for Lula?

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How is the law changing?

In 2013, an investigation into a money laundering operation at a car wash in the Brazilian capital, Brasilia, led to a series of confessions by suspects that exposed a nationwide corruption and bribery ring. The scam was alleged to include members of the government taking kickbacks from a number of the country’s largest oil and construction firms.

By late 2015, a major investigation had seen dozens of high-profile business leaders and politicians jailed for their involvement - including Lula - and also led to the impeachment of then-president Dilma Rousseff.

As the enormity of the scandal became clear, Brazilian courts enacted a law three years ago stating that defendants who have a conviction upheld may be jailed even if their other appeals are pending decisions.

According to Al Jazeera, the law was introduced because “the prospect of serving immediate prison time after losing a first appeal encouraged suspects to negotiate plea deals with prosecutors, providing them information that helped unravel the biggest corruption scheme in Brazil’s history”.

The court ruling this week means that convicted criminals will now only go to prison after they have exhausted their appeal options. This means that people currently awaiting appeal outcomes will be freed, including Lula, who was sentenced to 12 years in prison.

And the response?

Anti-corruption investigators and the country’s right-wing government - led by populist leader Jair Bolsonaro - have complained that scrapping the law will greatly weaken prosecutors’ ability to offer plea deals in exchange for vital information. 

In a statement, the prosecutors involved in the car wash scandal said that the reversal contradicted “the sentiment of repudiation regarding impunity and the fight against corruption, which are priorities for the nation”.

According to the National Council of Justice, some 4,895 convicts could potentially benefit from the rule change.

Commentators have also pointed out that the release of Lula is likely to “heighten tensions in a polarised nation”, as he had been favourite to win the 2018 election before his imprisonment barred him from running, The Sydney Morning Herald reports. 

As the newspaper explains: “Millions of his supporters refused to vote for his replacement, Fernando Haddad, or for Bolsonaro, forfeiting the vote and contributing to Bolsonaro’s victory.”

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