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Protests erupt in Brazil after release of Rousseff-Lula recording

AFP , Thursday 17 Mar 2016
Anti-government demonstrators attend a protest at the appointment of Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva as a minister, in Sao Paulo, Brazil, March 16, 2016 (Photo: Reuters)

Protests have erupted in Brazil after a recorded phone call between President Dilma Rousseff and her once-popular predecessor was released, suggesting that she appointed him to her cabinet to spare him from arrest for corruption.

Rousseff appointed Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva as her chief of staff on Wednesday hoping that his political prowess can save her administration. The president is battling an impeachment attempt, a deep recession, and the fallout of an explosive corruption scandal at state oil giant Petrobras.

However hours after Lula's appointment, federal judge Sergio Moro, who is heading a probe into the Petrobras scandal, ordered the release of a call recorded by police suggesting darker motives.

Rousseff called Lula's bugged phone to tell him she would be sending him the official decree nominating him as her chief of staff so that he could make use of it "if necessary."

That extract seems to confirm that Lula's nomination to the post was aimed at sparing him possible arrest for corruption.

Cabinet ministers can only be tried before the Supreme Court in Brazil, and ministerial immunity will now protect Lula from prosecution in criminal court.

Lula vigorously denies involvement in the scandal, in which investigators say construction companies conspired with Petrobras executives to overbill the oil giant to the tune of $2 billion, paying huge bribes to politicians and parties along the way.

Rousseff's office said the phone call was merely to discuss a procedural matter.

The recording's release caused an uproar in Congress, where furious opposition lawmakers shouted "Resign! Resign!"

Some 2,000 people spontaneously gathered in the capital Brasilia to demand that Lula step down and Rousseff leave office.

"Instead of explaining himself and assuming his responsibilities, former president Lula preferred to flee out the back door," said lawmaker Antonio Imbassahy, lower house leader for opposition party PMDB.

"It's a confession of guilt and a slap to society. President Dilma, by appointing him, has become his accomplice," Imbassahy added. "The final chapter in this story will be her impeachment."

As night fell, another protest broke out in Sao Paulo.

"Resign! Resign!" shouted several thousand protesters gathered outside the building housing FIESP, a powerful federation of Sao Paulo industries. The building was illuminated in green and yellow -- Brazil's national colors -- and included a large inscription that read "Impeach now."

The impeachment push is not directly related to the corruption scandal, but has advanced in tandem with it.

The president's office responded by announcing that "judicial and administrative measures" would be taken to "repair the flagrant violation of the law and the constitution committed" by judge Moro, but gave no specifics.

On social media, critics gleefully quoted Lula's own words as a rabble-rousing labor leader back to him: "In Brazil, when a poor person steals, he goes to prison. When a rich person steals, he becomes a cabinet minister!"

Some three million Brazilians flooded the streets in nationwide protests on Sunday calling for Rousseff's departure.

Rousseff fired back at her critics in a press conference.

"Lula's arrival in my government strengthens it and there are people who don't want it to be stronger," she said.

She played up Lula's political acumen and said she would give him "the necessary powers... to help Brazil."

Opponents however warned that Lula would be the country's de facto leader.

"The ex-president is launching... his third term and the president is ending her second," said Green Party Senator Alvaro Dias.

Lula, the 70-year-old co-founder of the ruling Workers' Party (PT), left office with 80 percent popularity ratings and the status of a hero to the left.

During his two terms, he presided over a watershed period of prosperity and social programs that helped lift tens of millions out of poverty.

But his legacy is threatened by charges that he accepted a luxury apartment as a bribe from a company implicated in the Petrobras scandal.

Lula however has far greater charisma than Rousseff, as well as the political instinct for forging alliances.

"No one else in the PT has the force of Lula," said political analyst Michael Mohallem of the Getulio Vargas Foundation.

Rousseff, 68, chaired Petrobras during much of the period under investigation, but so far faces no charges.

The anti-corruption probe however now appears to have her squarely in its sights.

In a plea deal published Tuesday, a senator arrested in the case accused Rousseff of trying to buy his silence.

The senator, Delcidio Amaral of the Workers' Party, told investigators that Rousseff contacted him via intermediaries to urge him not to testify.

The president angrily denied the accusation.

Prosecutors have used plea bargains throughout the investigation to implicate a steadily expanding Who's Who of politicians and business executives in the spiraling scandal.

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