Brazil: Jail for Workers’ Party chief who ran £22m slush fund to bribe MPs

Jos� Dirceu with president Luiz Inacio 'Lula' da Silva in 2004
Jos� Dirceu with president Luiz Inacio 'Lula' da Silva in 2004
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A LEADING Brazilian socialist politician has been sentenced to almost 11 years in jail for his part in a vote-buying scheme.

José Dirceu was chief of staff to former president Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva and founded ­Brazil’s ruling Workers’ Party with him.

Dirceu, 66, was jailed for ten years and ten months at the end of one of the biggest corruption trials in modern Brazilian ­history. He was found guilty of orchestrating a bribery scheme in which Workers’ Party officials and their associates paid MPs a monthly retainer in exchange for support in parliament during Mr da Silva’s first term, almost a decade ago.

The high-profile case, heard by Brazil’s supreme court, has gripped Brazil for more than a month, bringing an unprecedented level of accountability to a country long-accustomed to widespread corruption.

For many Brazilians, the convictions on Monday night show that their democratic institutions, while not perfect, have matured, especially a judicial system that historically was unable and often unwilling to tackle corrupt politicians. The trial has been all the more surprising because the Workers’ Party is still in power and most of the judges were appointed by Mr da Silva or his chosen successor, president Dilma Rousseff.

The court sentenced José Genoino, the president of the Worker’s Party when the scandal broke in 2005, to six years and 11 months in prison, and its then-treasurer Delubio Soares got eight years and 11 months. Dirceu was also ordered to pay a 676,000 real (£206,000) fine.

Last month, the court convicted 25 people, including Dirceu, for diverting at least £22 million in public money to bribe MPs to support Mr da Silva’s minority government during his first two years in office. His first term, from 2003 through 2006, was crippled by the scandal though the former president, amid an economic boom, was easily re-elected for a second four-year term. Mr da Silva has denied any knowledge of the scheme and has even suggested it never existed.

Though he remains Brazil’s most popular politician, the convictions have tarnished the memory of his time in office and marred his legacy.

Dirceu, who helped Mr da Silva found the Workers’ Party in 1980, was found guilty of corruption and conspiring with others to run the scheme. Known as the mensalão, or “big monthly payment,” the plot diverted public funds through front companies to corrupt MPs.

It remains unclear when Dirceu and the others convicted will be arrested or how much time they will actually serve as the sentences could still be subject to challenges. House arrest remains a possibility for at least part of their terms. Their passports have already been confiscated to prevent them fleeing.

Dirceu, seen as Mr da Silva’s natural successor, was forced to resign when the scandal broke in 2005 and banned from politics, the end of a career that began as a Communist student leader and urban guerrilla who fought military dictatorship four decades ago.

If Dirceu goes to jail it won’t be the first time. He was arrested in 1968 by the military and freed in exchange for the kidnapped US ambassador, a story that became the basis of the 1997 film Four Days in September.