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Opinion

Opinion: Is Brazil's justice system finally cracking down on corruption?

The detention and questioning of Brazilian ex-president Lula da Silva suggests that no one is above the law in Brazil anymore. That is still not evidence of an independent legal system, writes DW's Jan Walter.

Brazilian police did not raid Luis Inacio da Silva's home out of the blue. The former president was being questioned for the "Operation Car Wash" inquiry, which is probing into bribery and kickback allegations at the state-controlled Brazilian oil company, Petrobras. His detention caused quite a stir as it shows that the popular politician is not above the law.

This is not normal in Brazil. The country can furnish a long list of politicians who have been accused but never indicted, indicted but never convicted, and convicted but never sentenced.

Virtually limitless immunity

The two most prominent politicians known for their involvement in criminal activities still hold political office: In 1992, then President Fernando Collor de Mello resigned after he failed to stop his impeachment trial. Since 2007, he has been representing the state of Alagoas in Brazil's federal senate.

Jan D. Walter

DW Correspondent Jan D. Walter

Paulo Maluf was once governor of the state of Sao Paolo and two-time mayor of the city of Sao Paulo. In the past decades, he has been found guilty of several crimes, which include corruption, establishing a criminal organization and fraud. Many international arrest warrants have been issued for him. In his last trial in 2015, a French court convicted him of money laundering.

In Brazilian Portuguese, the verb "malufar" has become a synonym for the misappropriation of public funds. Yet Maluf is now on his fourth term as a federal deputy in Brazil.

Laws for corrupt politicians

Voters actually elect these people. Yet how is it possible that these candidates can run again, instead of serving prison sentences? The Brazilian justice system must ask itself this question.

In 2010, new legislation made it possible to deal with such cases: Then President Lula da Silva passed what is known as the "Clean Slate Law," which does not allow citizens with a criminal record to hold a political office for eight years – well, theoretically. The law must be applied by competent and independent prosecutors and judges.

Suspicion of partisanship

Many Brazilians believe that far too few members of the legal system possess the integrity to apply the laws -especially with regard to Lula da Silva's supporters, his successor, Dilma Rousseff, and her Workers' Party (PT). People generally have strong reservations about the judiciary: Why did high ranking PT party officials receive prison sentences in the vote-buying Mensalao scandal, while authorities did not bother to probe deeper into a smaller, yet similar system of corruption run by the Social Democrats (PSDA) in the state of Minas Gerais?

To this date, PT opponents still do not understand why Lula da Silva has not been prosecuted. As party leader, was he not aware of the fact that his treasurer was buying parliamentarians' votes with public money? At least Lula's rivals must feel vindicated now.

Hope of justice

Still, it is highly doubtful that they believe in the independence of the justice system. Now, over 30 years after the restoration of democracy in Brazil, it is high time that the justice system worked on its credibility. The "Operation Carwash" inquiry is taking a step in the right direction.

Of course, this is probably the first time authorities dared to detain and question one of the most popular politicians in Brazil. Most importantly, "Operation Carwash" must be carried out thoroughly and across political parties.

The decisive factor in improving the reputation of the Brazilian judicial system will be its perseverance and ability to act on suspicion, regardless of political and economic implications.

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