Brazil’s former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva must stand trial for corruption, a judge ruled Tuesday, after prosecutors accused the popular leftist of masterminding the large-scale plundering of state oil company Petrobras.
The crusading judge behind the Petrobras investigation, Sergio Moro, accepted charges filed last week by prosecutors investigating Lula — making him the highest-profile figure to face trial in a case that has taken down some of the country’s most powerful business executives and politicians.
“Given that there is sufficient evidence of (Lula’s) responsibility… I accept the charges,” Moro said in his decision.
The charges allege that Lula, 70, received the equivalent of 3.7 million reais ($1.1 million) in bribes.
Among the accusations are charges that the former union leader and his wife received a beachside apartment and upgrades to the property from a major construction company, OAS, which was one of the players in the Petrobras scheme.
More broadly, prosecutors last week singled out Lula — who was president during much of the time that Petrobras was being fleeced of billions of dollars — as the scheme’s “supreme commander.”
“I am sad because I just learned (Judge) Moro accepted the charge lodged, even though it is all a farce, a huge lie,” the ex-president said from Brazil by videoconference to New York where his lawyers held a solidarity event for him.
– Courtroom showdown –
Lula, who presided over an economic boom from 2003 to 2011, will now go head to head with Moro for the first time.
The crusading judge’s anti-graft investigation, known as Operation Car Wash, has had explosive consequences in Brazil.
It may now thwart Lula’s hopes of a political comeback in the 2018 presidential election.
It already played a part in ousting the leftist Workers’ Party, which he co-founded.
The once unstoppable party’s 13 years in power ended last month when Lula’s hand-picked successor, Dilma Rousseff, was convicted of budget irregularities in an impeachment trial.
The charges against Rousseff were unconnected to the Petrobras case, but the scandal — combined with Brazil’s worst recession in decades — did much to bring her down.
Rousseff was replaced on August 31 by center-right President Michel Temer, her vice president-turned-nemesis.
He has vowed to slash a ballooning budget deficit and lead Latin America’s largest economy back to growth.
But the Petrobras case also looms large over his administration, and several of his close allies are under investigation.
– Symbol of Brazil’s decline –
Lula was hailed internationally for combining business-friendly economic policy with social-welfare programs that helped fight centuries of deep-rooted inequality in Brazil.
He also was key in winning hosting rights to the 2014 World Cup and the Rio de Janeiro Olympics, which finished on August 21 — South America’s first.
But his legacy and power base are rapidly crumbling.
He challenged prosecutors last week to prove his alleged crimes, saying he and Rousseff were both victims of conspiracies by Brazilian “elites” who felt threatened by the Workers’ Party.
The scandal has also taken a heavy toll on Petrobras, Brazil’s biggest company, which has become a symbol of the country’s decline from emerging giant to economic basket case.
The company announced Tuesday it will cut investments by 25 percent over the next five years.
It ended 2015 with losses of $9.6 billion — its second year in the red, and worst performance since its founding in 1953.
Under the corruption scheme, Petrobras allegedly gave over-inflated contracts to other big firms, such as OAS and construction rival Odebrecht.
The scheme was allegedly orchestrated by high-ranking politicians who took bribes from the contractors, sometimes for themselves and sometimes to fill party coffers