SAO PAULO — Brazil’s top court has delivered a ruling that could free inmates still appealing convictions, including former President Luiz Inácio Lula Da Silva and others jailed in a sprawling corruption investigation known as Car Wash, or Lava Jato in Portuguese. The probe was praised for working to dismantle Brazil’s culture of impunity, but it has faced growing criticism for allegedly being used to settle political scores.
WHAT IS CAR WASH?
The probe began in March 2014 with an investigation into a Brasilia gas station related to black market money-changing. It wound up unearthing kickbacks from billions of dollars in construction contracts awarded by state-run oil-giant Petrobras. Much of those illicit funds went to party coffers and politicians’ pockets.
Brazil’s long history of high-level corruption seemed to be on the defensive thanks to the Car Wash task force of prosecutors and judges. Defendants were kept in jail while awaiting trial, a measure that helped secure plea bargains.
WHAT WAS DA SILVA CONVICTED OF?
The former president was convicted of corruption and money laundering in connection with the purchase of a beachfront apartment in the seaside city of Guaruja, in Sao Paulo state. Prosecutors successfully argued the apartment was promised as a kickback from a construction company. Its former CEO said the apartment was reserved for Da Silva.
The 3,197-square-foot (297-square-meter) apartment in the Solaris complex faces Asturias Beach, one of the busiest in Guaruja.
Da Silva appealed his conviction but it was upheld last year, and he was put behind bars in April 2018. Per a Supreme Court determination in 2016, criminals whose convictions were upheld on appeal could begin serving their sentences.
The former president is now appealing to higher courts. He maintains that he was framed by his political opponents.
WHAT HAPPENED AT THE SUPREME COURT ON THURSDAY?
Justices ruled in a 6-5 vote that defendants can only be jailed after they’ve exhausted all their appeals in the country’s four-level system, reversing their 2016 determination. Critics had argued the court’s prior ruling violated Brazil’s constitution, which states no one can be considered guilty until due process is concluded.
WHOSE CASES DOES THAT AFFECT?
Da Silva’s case is the most prominent both because of his political stature and the fact he has appeals pending in both of Brazil’s top courts. The decision could also free José Dirceu, a former chief-of staff in Da Silva’s administration, and other prominent politicians caught up in the Car Wash corruption probe.
The ruling also affects cases unrelated to corruption. There are almost 5,000 inmates still appealing convictions. However, most analysts say the decision will not benefit violent criminals as judges have already issued preventative detentions in their cases, meaning a sentence is not required to jail them.
Among others who may be released is DJ Rennan da Penha, a popular funk musician who was convicted for association with crime. Activists also want the release of scavenger Rafael Braga, who was arrested during protests in 2013 for carrying bottles of detergent that could allegedly be used as weapons.
WILL LULA BE AUTOMATICALLY RELEASED?
No. Lawyers for the former president first had to file a request for his release, which they did on Friday in the southern city of Curitiba, where he is jailed. The judge evaluating the request can wait until Brazil’s top court publishes a document with the result of Thursday night’s debate, or decide beforehand since the session was public and televised. However, there is no deadline for the judge to reach a decision.
Mauricio Savarese, The Associated Press