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No Impunity: Brazil’s court delivers a strong message

On November 13 the Supreme Court in Brazil sentenced one of the leading politicians in the country, José Dirceu former chief of staff to President Lula, to 10 years and 10 months in prison for corruption in a vote buying scandal that was uncovered in 2005. This significant sentence underscored the judiciary’s intent to send a strong message that there will be no impunity for politicians in Brazil. This was part of a highly-publicised trial of 40 politicians and business people that has riveted Brazilians for months. Recent polls in Brazil had shown that most people believed the politicians would get off.

At Transparency International we believe that it is imperative that there should be no impunity for those with power and influence who use their positions for personal gain. People must believe that their institutions are fair and that everyone is equal before the law. Why would ordinary people resist corruption if those at the top do not and get away with it?

Too often in Brazil, politicians and those with influence have avoided justice. This has been reflected in the research we do.

  • Brazil scores 3.8 and ranks 73 out of 183 countries on Transparency International’s 2011 Corruption Perceptions Index, on a scale where 0 means a country is perceived as highly corrupt and 10 means that a country is perceived as very clean. This year's Corruption Perceptions Index will be published on December 5.
  • Brazil ranks 14th out of 28 major exporting countries on Transparency International’s 2011 Bribe Payers Index, which asses which major exporting countries are likely to pay bribes when they do business abroad.
  • Brazilians believe political parties and parliament are the most corrupt institutions and 64 percent of those surveyed said corruption had increased in the past three year, according to the Global Corruption Barometer 2010/2011.

Forty people from business and politics are being tried for their involvement in the so-called Mensalão scandal which broke in 2005. The charges, which include corruption, money laundering and illicit payments, relate to a scheme to provide monthly payments – or mensalão -- to politicians to buy the votes necessary to keep then President Lula’s Socialist Party government in power. The most high-level person to be convicted is José Dirceu, former chief of staff to President Lula at the time, who was named as the mastermind of the scheme.

So far 25 have been convicted and four acquitted with a handful more still waiting judgements. Those convicted are likely to be sentenced within the next month. For the first time, powerful politicians may go to prison.

Winds of change

Brazil is putting fighting corruption high on the agenda. In the past year President Dilma Rouseff showed little hesitation when she forced a succession of ministers out of their jobs when they were named in corruption scandals and new citizen initiatives are giving more power to the people to hold their leaders to account. In a recent interview, following the sentencing of Dirceu, the president said: “I accept the decision and do not challenge it.”

Brazil’s constitution states that citizens are allowed to propose legislation to the National Congress. More than 1 million Brazilians did just that by proposing a law that in 2010 was passed as the Clean Records Law (Lei da Ficha Limpa) aimed at preventing corruption in both national and regional legislatures. This law asserts that persons criminally convicted by a judicial or administrative court are ineligible to run for political office for eight consecutive years at any level. In the recent local elections more than 1,000 candidates were barred because of this.

The government also passed a right to information law in 2012 that guarantees Brazilian citizens access to federal, state, provincial, and municipal public documents. Proper implementation of the law is now needed to ensure greater transparency and accountability. Brazil has also joined with the United States as co-founder of the Open Government Partnership, which calls for governments to improve transparency and prevent corruption. The partnership’s Action Plan was published in 2011.

This is a start but no one is under the illusion that the problem of corruption has been solved.

As Leo Torresan, head of Amaribbo, our partner organisation in Brazil described the direction Brazil is taking: “The Mensalão trial is a true watershed between past and future, and certainly a violent blow against corruption and to the corrupt accustomed to impunity especially when it comes to the use of public money. Brazilians will begin to understand what is happening. But more still needs to be done.”

The 15th International Anti-Corruption Conference

From 7-10 November this year, leading experts from the anti-corruption community gathered in Brazil’s capital Brasilia for the 15th International Anti-Corruption Convention to take stock of the global fight against corruption. With the theme Mobilising People: Connecting Agents of Change, it showcased best practice and key challenges in the prevention of corruption, lessons Brazil can learn from and implement. Read more on the outcomes of the conference and the Brasilia Declaration.

Image: Flickr/ Creative Commons: movimentobrasilcontracorrupcao


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