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SAO PAULO, Brazil – Brazilian prosecutors requested the arrest of powerful former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva Thursday, March 10 deepening the crisis engulfing his protege and successor Dilma Rousseff.
A day after charging the once wildly popular Lula with money laundering, Sao Paulo state prosecutors asked that he be placed in preventive custody, according to a court document seen by Agence France-Presse, in the latest twist in a massive corruption scandal that has upended Brazilian politics.
It is now up to a Sao Paulo judge to decide whether to accept the charges, which Lula denies, and whether to jail him pending trial. (READ: What you need to know about Brazil’s corruption scandal)
Lula’s legal woes have only amplified Rousseff’s.
The leftist president was already facing an impeachment drive, a bruising recession, the spiraling scandal at state oil company Petrobras and a probe into alleged violations of electoral law in her reelection campaign last year.
Prosecutors accused Lula of “violating the public order” by calling his supporters to hold mass protests last Friday, March 4 after investigators hauled him in for questioning in the sprawling graft investigation centered on Petrobras.
“It has been demonstrated that because of his status as an ex-president he is able to place himself above the law,” said the document, an annex to the charge sheet filed with the court.
The ruling Workers’ Party, which Lula co-founded, condemned the request.
“It would be nonsense, a disgrace for any judge to accept this request,” said party leader Rui Falcao.
The former president’s foundation, the Lula Institute, accused the prosecution of “a sad attempt to use its office for political ends.”
The arrest request came against the backdrop of speculation that Rousseff could name Lula to a heavyweight ministerial post.
Some Rousseff allies argued such a move would both leverage the ex-president’s charisma for the embattled administration and protect him from criminal charges in ordinary court.
Under Brazilian law, cabinet ministers can only be tried before the Supreme Court.
“What team wouldn’t want to line up Pele on the field?” Minister Ricardo Berzoini told journalists, equating Lula with the legendary Brazilian footballer.
Lula, a former steelworker and labor leader, led Brazil through a watershed economic boom from 2003 to 2011.
An icon of the Latin American left, he rolled out pro-poor programs credited with helping lift millions from poverty.
But his administration was also haunted by scandals.
Now he is charged with hiding ownership of a luxury triplex apartment at a seaside resort in Sao Paulo state.
Prosecutors said they had documents and two dozen witnesses indicating Lula and his family are the apartment’s real owners.
Opposition protests Sunday
The state allegations come on top of a separate, much broader federal probe called Operation Car Wash into a massive corruption scheme centered on Petrobras, the largest company in Brazil.
Petrobras executives allegedly took bribes to give contracts to big construction firms and other contractors, who then massively overbilled the oil company.
Some of the extra cash – estimated by Petrobras to total at least $2 billion – allegedly went to politicians and party coffers.
The scandal has already seen a Who’s Who of Brazilian politicians and businessmen face charges, but Lula is the highest-profile figure yet.
Car Wash prosecutors say they suspect the triplex apartment in question was given to him as a bribe by OAS, one of the companies accused in the scandal.
Rousseff faces multiple problems of her own.
Congress is mulling impeachment proceedings over alleged illegalities in the government budget. Meanwhile, the Supreme Electoral Court is considering a case that could result in judges invalidating her 2014 reelection.
So far, she has managed to fight off impeachment, but the opposition has been fired up by the case against Lula and hopes nationwide protests scheduled for Sunday, March 13 will send a powerful message to Congress.
Analysts say Rousseff could also be in prosecutors’ sights.
She has not been formally accused, but was chairman of Petrobras during much of the period in question. – Rappler.com