Thursday, July 13, 2017

Lula sentenced to almost 10 years in jail (July 13, 2017)

Former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was sentenced to nine years and six months in prison after being found guilty on corruption and money-laundering charges.

Lula, as he is known, will remain free pending appeal on the case supporters say is politically motivated. The appeals process could take up to a year. If the sentence is upheld, or if he is found guilty in any of the other several cases brought against him, he will be ineligible to run for president next year. Lula is a frontrunner in opinion polls for the 2018 election, notes the Guardian. Lula is facing four other corruption trials, reports Reuters.

Though the Operation Car Wash probe has enjoyed widespread support from Brazilians, yesterday's decision could prove divisive, and could polarize pro- and anti-Lula camps, reports Bloomberg.

In yesterday's decision, Judge Sergio Moro said Lula took part in a massive corruption scheme at state-owned oil company Petrobras, in which billions of dollars were paid to politicians, executives and middlemen in exchange for contracts. Specifically Lula is accused of accepting a luxury sea-side apartment in São Paulo from a construction company in exchange for securing Petrobras contracts. The apartment and renovations covered by the OAS construction group are estimated to be worth $700,000. (NYT puts the number at $1.1 million.)

It's a heavy blow for his Workers' Party and for the legacy of the legendary leader, reports the Wall Street Journal. Lula's lawyers categorically rejected the verdict, and maintain his innocence. Lula called a press conference for later today, reports Folha de S. Paulo.

Moro wrote in his ruling that he "took no personal satisfaction in this conviction, quite to the contrary."

Under Lula's presidency millions of people were lifted out of poverty, closing the gap between rich and poor in a country with enormous disparity, reports the New York Times.

The ruling comes at a moment of extreme turmoil in Brazilian politics: President Michel Temer has also been charged with corruption, and could be suspended to face trial in coming weeks. (See below.) Former president Dilma Rousseff, Lula's protégé,  was ousted less than a year ago.

Markets reacted favorably to the news, a sign that traders are betting it will hinder Lula's return to the presidency next year.

But some constitutional experts fear the ruling "could plunge next year’s elections into a legal quagmire," notes the WSJ. Potential scenarios could include Lula being elected to the presidency from inside jail, depending on the timing of appeals and the timeline to declare candidacy. Legal scholars believe the ruling means Lula could run for president while the case is being appealed, but if his appeal is rejected it could prevent him from eventually taking office, according to the NYT. If Lula were assume office before the court rules on his appeal, the process would be suspended as a sitting president cannot be judged for events before his mandate, reports El País. (A clause that is in fact protecting Temer from other corruption allegations.)

In a separate piece the New York Times has a recap of Lula's trajectory from crushing poverty to president and beyond.

Aside: The Constitution and Justice Commission in the lower chamber of Congress is currently debating the charges against Temer, reports El País. Temer still has the votes to block the charges, according to Bloomberg's tally. See Monday's post. An innovative campaign dubbed 342 Now was launched this week, aimed at pressuring lawmakers to vote for Temer's suspension, reports The Intercept. The website allows users to send messages to every Congress member not only by email but also through their platforms on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and wherever else they may be found online. "This new site is principally designed to provide anti-Temer voters, who constitute virtually the entire political spectrum, to apply serious pressure to members of Congress, who will vote shortly on Temer’s fate and will see that their political futures are in jeopardy if they stand behind him."

Another Aside: Raquel Dodge was approved by Brazil's Senate to replace prosecutor general Rodrigo Janot in September, reports El País. Temer bucked tradition and chose the runner-up in an election among top prosecutors that generated a list of three attorney-general candidates from which he could choose, though leaders generally choose the candidate favored by prosecutors. Temer is accused of attempting to undermine the Operation Car Wash investigation. (See June 30's briefs.)

News Briefs
  • Immigration advocates say U.S. border officials have systemically blocked asylum seekers from accessing the asylum process. A lawsuit filed by several legal groups claims that the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and US Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) have put asylum seekers at the US-Mexico border in grave danger by threatening, misleading or rejecting them, reports the Guardian. Immigration agencies have been emboldened in these illegal actions since Trump's election, say advocates. The lawsuit said the prevalence of CBP denying people access to the asylum process has been documented by their group, as well as the non-governmental organizations, Human Rights First, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
  • Increasingly, people fleeing violence in Central America are seeking asylum in Mexico. According to preliminary government figures, between January and March 2017 Mexico received 3,543 asylum applications, more than it did in all of 2015.  But access to asylum there "is still the exception rather than the rule," according to a new Latin America Working Group Education Fund report out today. "The process remains difficult and frustrating. Obtaining international protection in Mexico is largely dependent on access to legal counsel, case accompaniment, and proximity to Mexico’s COMAR offices to complete the process."
  • The full impact of the release of jailed opposition leader Leopoldo López to house arrest still unclear -- for some experts it is an expression of the government's efforts to lower pressure, while David Smilde believes it will ease the government's efforts to oust critical attorney general Luisa Ortega, who was responsible for López's prosecution, reports Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights. (See Monday's post.) "A separate, more cynical explanation for Lopez’s transfer has also been put forward in recent days. Because Capriles and Lopez have long been rivals in the opposition, some have speculated that the move is an attempt to foment disarray and disorganization inside the MUD." In a New York Times Español op-ed, Hugo Prieto argues that the release is "poisoned candy" for the opposition coaltion. Moving forward, unity will be key in attempts to oust the government, he argues. Release of political prisoners was an unshakeable demand for dialogue. Of crucial importance now is the government push to rewrite the constitution, and the potential to avert that path, he writes. "If the government succeeds in imposing the constituent process, there will be political realignments within Chavismo and a recomposition of the opposition that will test their leadership. Possibly the renegotiations will restart after August 3, the day the National Constituent Assembly would start. At that point, unity will be the most important patrimony of the opposition in the fight to restore democracy."
  • The opposition has called for a plebiscite on the plan to convene a Constituent Assembly, to be held this weekend. However government officials have marked that the consultation -- organized outside of the national electoral commission's aegis -- is unlawful. "July 16th is guaranteed to be eventful. Beyond the logistic difficulty the opposition faces in carrying out a nationwide plebiscite, the government is going to do what it can to complicate it. The CNE has already announced that it is going to use July 16 to carryout a trial run of the ANC election nationwide," notes Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights.
  • An uncomfortable truth for the opposition is that removing Maduro will require winning over some of his supporters, according to the Associated Press. The opposition's sudden embrace of the newly critical attorney general Luisa Ortega Díaz is in part a recognition of this, writes Joshua Goodman. "Ortega, the most prominent defector so far, brings a unique combination of impeccable revolutionary credentials, intimate knowledge of the government's inner workings and a semi-autonomous post with which to challenge the government's moves to centralize power and crush the opposition."
  • Former Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero met with López yesterday, reports EFE. Rodríguez Zapatero's mediation reportedly played a key role in securing the opposition leader's release to house arrest. (See yesterday's briefs.)
  • Defending the environment in Latin America is increasingly a life-threatening activity. In Guatemala at least 41 people have been killed since 2010. The pattern of repression at the Canadian owned Escobal mine, where eight people have been killed in recent years, "provides an insight into the murky world of extractive industries in the country," reports the Guardian. The projects continue despite overwhelming opposition from rural communities whose livelihood would be affected. "Across Latin America, Canadian-owned mines have been linked to at least 44 deaths and 400 injuries between 2000 and 2015, according to the Brand Canada investigation by the Justice and Corporate Accountability Project (JCAP) at Osgoode Hall Law School in Ontario. A quarter of the documented violence took place in Guatemala, where the embassy is accused of promoting business interests over human rights."
  • Indigenous groups in Guatemala have called for a 48-strike and are holding protests to demand President Jimmy Morales' resignation, reports TeleSUR.
  • The U.S. Congress is calling for accountability after a report demonstrated that Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) misled lawmakers about civilian deaths in Honduras, reports Foreign Policy. (See May 25's post.)
  • Civil society groups in Haiti are worried about an effort to rebuilt the country's army twenty years after it was dissolved, reports AFP. The cost, in such a poor country, has been questioned by critics. And others worry it could become a militia or paramilitary group. (See July 5's briefs.)
  • The U.S. Coast Guard repatriated 102 migrants back to Haiti, yesterday, after interdicting them near the Bahamas, reports the Miami Herald. Haitians are increasingly attempting to migrate by sea as Brazil, Chile and the Turks and Caicos have in recent months restricted legal Haitian migration, and the U.S has tightened its border with Mexico.
  • "Gender ideology" is a term that has become a banner for anti-LGBT activists in Latin America. Groups that fight against gay marriage, gay adoption, sexual education and abortion use it to accuse diversity activists of pushing an agenda that denies "natural differences" between genders. (See March 24's briefs on Peru and the post for Nov. 14, 2016, on how the issue played into the failed Colombian referendum on the peace accord.) "This movement has been understood at an antagonist of the rights of LGBT people. The reality, however, is that its strategies and policies do not only have the potential to affect this group. What the movement seeks to reinstate, where it has been weakened, is a gender order that has served historically mainly to deny women a variety of rights," argues Estefanía Vela Barba in a New York Times Español op-ed.
  • The United Nations independent expert on human rights and national solidarity, Virginia Dandan, began an official visit to Cuba this week. She is the second U.N. independent expert to visit the island in recent months. The visits, by invitation of the Cuban government, mark a new stage in relations between the U.N. and Cuba, reports EFE.
  • A court in Chile has asked the U.S. to extradite former Chilean secret police agent, Armando Fernandez Larios, who is wanted in the kidnapping and killing of a Communist Party leader during the 1973-1990 dictatorship, reports the Associated Press.
  • A state visit by Paraguayan president has thrown Taiwan a diplomatic lifeline as Beijing chips away at regional support for the self-governing island, reports the Associated Press.
  • Private investors have announced a major oil discovery in Mexican waters, an apparent validation of the country's decision in 2014 to open up the country’s energy industry to private investment after 76 years of state ownership, reports the New York Times. The discovery and strong foreign investor interest is a boon for the Mexican government, reports the Wall Street Journal.

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