“Former Brazil President Lula faces sixth trial for corruption,” ran the headline from Reuters last week. For almost all consumers of the international media, that was all they needed to know. Combined with the reporting on his sentencing to more than nine years in prison on July 12, few would have any doubts as to his guilt.
Lula da Silva, one of the most popular presidents in Brazilian history, left office with an 80 percent approval rating. He had also been the strong front-runner for next year’s presidential election. Clearly his opponents—which include most of the major media in Brazil—would like to take him out of the game.
Is that what these prosecutions are all about? It’s worth looking at the evidence in the case for which Lula has been sentenced, especially since it is possible the prosecuting judge has led with the strongest of the six cases that have been arrayed against him.
Lula is accused of accepting a bribe, in the form of an apartment, from the Brazilian construction company OAS. The firm bought a building where Lula had been making payments on a cheap apartment (about $67,000) to the previous owner. According the court, OAS remodeled a much bigger apartment, worth about $843,000 when it was finished, and offered it to Lula for the price of his original apartment.
The first thing that smells funny is that almost all of the evidence against Lula is from the testimony of one confessed, convicted criminal, José Adelmário Pinheiro Filho. He is a former executive of OAS, which was a key actor in Brazil’s infamous Lava Jato (Car Wash) scandal. The scandal involved massive corruption at the state-owned oil company, in which bribes were paid by construction companies to receive contracts at inflated prices.
Pinheiro got more than 80 percent of his 16-year prison sentence eliminated in exchange for his testimony against Lula.
Of course there have been many trials in the United States and other countries in which, for example, a mafia or drug kingpin is convicted with the help of testimony from someone further down the food chain who cops a plea. But in such cases we normally expect to see some serious corroborating evidence that the defendant committed the crime as alleged by the criminal witness—perhaps documents, eyewitnesses, or physical evidence. In the case against Lula, one searches in vain in the 238-page sentencing document for such evidence (more on this below).
Moreover, under Brazil’s legal system, the presiding judge in this case, Sergio Moro, is also the prosecutor. Not only that, but he has been able to keep people in jail until they sing. The International Bar Association notes that “senior executives, more accustomed to private jets and five-star hotels, were held four to a spartan cell, 12 metres squared with an open squat toilet,” and notes that the CEO of a major construction company and his deputy signed collaboration agreements “after 105 days in police custody, and just five days after judges turned down another habeas corpus request.”