Brazilian congressional committee rejects corruption trial for President Michel Temer
Attorney general claims Temer took bribes from an executive in the meat-packing industry
A congressional committee rejected a recommendation to try Brazil's president for corruption, handing him a symbolic victory Thursday a day after a former president was convicted of graft.
The corruption cases against two major Brazilian figures underscored the extent of political turmoil in Latin America's largest country, where a spreading corruption investigation has uncovered a scheme to exchange bribes and kickbacks for political favours and public contracts.
That probe has led to an accusation that President Michel Temer accepted bribes from a meat-packing executive in exchange for helping the company obtain favourable government decisions. Temer has denied wrongdoing.
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Earlier this week, a lawmaker appointed to study Temer's case recommended that the charge be accepted, a setback for Temer. But on Thursday, a Chamber of Deputies committee rejected that recommendation, swinging the pendulum back in Temer's favour.
Both moves are largely symbolic. The decision to suspend Temer and put him on trial rests with the full lower house, which is scheduled to vote on the matter Aug. 2. If two-thirds of the 513 deputies should vote against Temer, lower house Speaker Rodrigo Maia would take over presidential duties while Brazil's Supreme Court tried the president.
After the contentious committee vote, which occasionally descended into shouting matches, some lawmakers cried "Temer out!" and "Purchased vote!" Others responded with "Long live Temer!"
Committee members replaced
Some lawmakers complained that the extensive substitution of committee members in recent days made the committee vote a farce. Party leaders have the right to replace their members on committees as they see fit, and Brazilian media reported that parties allied with Temer made several such substitutions — in an apparent bid to guarantee the vote went the president's way.
A Brazilian website, 342Agora, that went live this week has a running count of how deputies say they will vote on Aug. 2. The website's name, Now342 in English, refers to the 342 votes needed for Temer's temporary removal from office, followed by an investigation and trial.
The website, supported by many well-known figures from Brazil's arts community, like actor Sonia Braga and musician Caetano Veloso, advocates for Temer's removal.
But their count on Thursday night suggests they have their work cut out for them. The number of deputies in favour of the investigation was 204, with 168 listed as undecided and 141 in Temer's camp opposing the investigation. As deputies commit to how they will vote on Aug. 2, more are for Temer than against.
The mammoth "Operation Car Wash" investigation has led to political tensions in Brazil between those who consider the prosecutors and judges pursuing corruption to be heroes and those who think some of the prosecutions are politically motivated.
A day after being convicted of corruption, former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva stoked those flames Thursday with a defiant public defence accusing his political opponents of trying to prevent him from becoming president again.
A federal judge found Lula guilty Wednesday and sentenced him to nearly 10 years in prison, though the charismatic leader remains free while an appeal is heard.
Lula says he will run for president
Lula told supporters the court had no proof and the conviction was politically motivated. To cheers, he said he wants to run for re-election next year.
"If anyone thinks that with this sentence they will pull me out of the game, they should know that I am in the game," he said. "The only people who can declare my end are the Brazilian people."
At various points the crowd broke into cheers of "Lula for president!" A supporter raised a poster behind him that read, "Election without Lula is a fraud."
His case now goes before a group of magistrates, and one of those judges promised Thursday that action will be taken before the October 2018 elections. If they uphold the conviction, Brazilian law says Lula would be barred from seeking office.
"By August next year, this case will be decided," said Judge Carlos Eduardo Thompson, one of three who will hear the appeal. "Either the court will confirm this decision and he will be unelectable or it will amend the decision and he will be able to run."
Lula was accused of receiving a beachfront apartment and repairs to the property as kickbacks from construction company OAS. He never owned the apartment, but prosecutors argued it was intended for him.
Lula is the highest-profile figure to be convicted in the corruption investigation so far, and the first Brazilian ex-president to be found guilty in a criminal proceeding at least since the restoration of democracy in the 1980s.
He faces charges in four other cases but has been considered a front-runner for next year's election.
With files from CBC News