Brazilian activists demand impeachment of judge in Rousseff trial


Critics say former president faced ‘impeachment with impunity’

by: Joe Leahy, São Paulo, FT

Just when Brazil was looking to put the trauma of last week`s impeachment of former president Dilma Rousseff behind it, the issue is threatening to make a comeback.

An activist group has petitioned the senate to impeach the supreme court judge who presided over Ms Rousseff`s political trial, Ricardo Lewandowski, for allowing the vote on her ousting to be split in two.

The constitution stipulates that any president who is impeached should lose office and be banned from public life for eight years, but Mr Lewandowski allowed the senate to hold a separate vote on the second matter, which she won.

The decision to water down Ms Rousseff`s punishment for manipulating the budget has been decried as “impeachment with impunity” by some analysts, leading to the call to oust Judge Lewandowski from his position as chief justice. Mr Lewandowski was not available for comment.

“The judge, as guardian of the federal constitution, cannot allow its violation, much less aid senators intending to do so,” said Fernando Holiday, a young leader of the activist group, the Movimento Brasil Livre — Free Brazil Movement — that is filing the petition.

While few expect the senate to try to impeach Mr Lewandowski, the dilution of Ms Rousseff`s punishment has sparked debate over whether it might weaken the legitimacy of the impeachment process.

It comes at a delicate time for her replacement. New president Michel Temer must implement tough economic reforms, such as an unpopular budget tightening, without the mandate of a direct vote for his programme.

Mr Temer is also facing a wave of street protests in São Paulo from leftist critics of his nascent rule that have been marred by police brutality.

The controversy over the senate vote could “prolong the transition period from Rousseff to the new president”, political commentator Paulo Sotero, director of the Brazil Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington DC, wrote in a column.

The issue threatens to cloud what was otherwise an overwhelming vote in favour of Ms Rousseff`s ousting, with 61 senators in the 81-seat upper house of congress supporting the motion to impeach her versus 20 against. The second vote to cancel her political rights, however, was supported by only 42 senators with 36 against and three abstaining. This was short of the necessary two-thirds majority to pass.

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Ms Rousseff`s opponents in the opposition centrist PSDB party and Mr Temer’s Brazilian Democratic Movement Party, the PMDB, have appealed against the decision.

Two supreme court judges have also publicly attacked the split vote as “bizarre” and one that would not pass a “kindergarten” test of constitutional law.

The decision to let Ms Rousseff re-enter public life also enraged her critics because it could allow her to dodge a case in the lower courts concerning corruption under her government at state-controlled oil company Petrobras.

In Brazil, senior serving politicians and some cabinet positions are granted protection from the lower courts. Removed from the presidency, Ms Rousseff could recover her immunity from the lower courts by quickly joining the government of a sympathetic state governor.

Several senators and congressmen accused of corruption and threatened with losing their mandates are also said to be hoping for the same leniency so they can resume high public office and avoid prosecution.

But legal experts said that even if a majority of the Supreme Court judges believed the split vote was wrong, they would not necessarily overturn it.

Their attitude throughout the impeachment had been that it was essentially a political trial and therefore had interfered only on procedural issues, shying away from those regarding merit.

“I think, under the circumstances, the supreme court will probably say this is not my call, it is the senate’s call,” said Oscar Vilhena, dean of FGV Direito SP, a law school.

He added the justices would be wary of upsetting the already delicate political equilibrium by ordering the impeachment vote to be held again.

As for Mr Temer, until he can show some progress on resolving a deep economic recession in Brazil, the former vice-president and ex-leader of the largest party in congress, the PMDB, will be walking a tightrope, analysts say.

One of the issues that undid Ms Rousseff was police violence in reaction to a series of protests against increases in bus ticket prices in São Paulo in 2013. These evolved into mass demonstrations against the 2014 World Cup and general disgruntlement with the political class, led by Ms Rousseff.

Images over the weekend showed a police car in São Paulo running down an apparently unarmed protester. Officers also detained a number of minors in the demonstrations.

The detentions “carried grave indications of the violation of fundamental rights, such as the right to protest freely and legal due process”, said independent prosecutor Marlon Weichert, of Brazil`s public prosecutors’ office, which is investigating the police action.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2016.

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