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Rousseff defense begins in rowdy Brazil impeachment trial

BRASILIA, Brazil (3rd UPDATE) – Allies of Brazil's suspended president Dilma Rousseff defended her on Friday, August 26, amid angry squabbling at an impeachment trial that could see the one-time leftist guerrilla ejected from office within days.

High emotions in the recession-stricken country boiled over on the Senate floor, where the trial looks set to end 13 years of leftist rule in Latin America's biggest economy.

Chief Justice Ricardo Lewandowski suspended the session before the first defense witnesses could be heard as senators exchanged accusations and procedural complaints.

"This political fight adds nothing, for either side," said the pro-impeachment Senate President Renan Calheiros, who was at the heart of the rowdy exchanges.

"I am sad to see how this session is a demonstration of infinite stupidity."

A 'coup' or a crime?

Rousseff, 68, is accused of breaking the law when she took unauthorized loans to bridge budget gaps during her 2014 reelection campaign.

She says her budgetary procedures were accepted as standard practice. She brands the impeachment drive a "coup."

"Everyone knows that there are accusations against deputies and senators of many parties. Yet they are trying to impeach a president who has committed no crime," said one of Rousseff's allies, Senator Lindbergh Farias.

He clashed with Calheiros before the presiding judge cut off their microphones.

Rousseff loyalist Senator Gleisi Hoffman told Agence France-Presse (AFP) on Thursday, August 25, she thought that the drive for impeachment could still be defeated.

"There are senators who, even though they've shown they favor impeachment, have said they could change their minds."

Rousseff to testify

The hearings began Thursday when the Senate heard from opponents of Brazil's first woman president.

On Monday, August 29, Rousseff herself will testify, in a keenly awaited piece of political theater.

Calheiros accused rivals of obstructing the trial with procedural complaints on Friday.

"If we continue this way, we will have to cancel the president's testimony scheduled for next Monday," he said.

Senate leaders expect a final vote on Rousseff's fate to take place by midweek. Her opponents are confident they will muster the necessary two-thirds majority to bring her down.

Senator Raimundo Lira, a strong backer of impeachment, told AFP that senators "have already made up their minds, and I don't think there will be any change at the vote."

If Rousseff goes, her former vice president turned bitter enemy, Michel Temer, will be sworn in, signaling a sharp shift for Brazil to the right.

Bitter division

Rousseff was tortured and imprisoned under the military dictatorship in the 1970s as a member of a Marxist urban guerrilla group. She later rose through the ranks of the leftist Workers' Party (PT).

She said late Wednesday, August 24 that she would resist "with the same force that I fought against the military dictatorship."

But her opponents see the drama in equally stark terms.

"Impeachment of Rousseff is a great victory for democracy, a liberation for our country from the left, which wanted to hang on to power," said Senator Janaina Paschoal, one of the authors of the impeachment petition against the president.

The left and right are now bitterly divided, heralding further instability for a country already struggling to resurrect its once buoyant economy.

A shrinking economy

Temer, who has served as acting president since May, is hardly more popular than Rousseff. A recent opinion poll found only 14% of Brazilians thought he was doing a good job.

However, his center-right coalition and choice of market-friendly ministers have raised expectations that he can get the economy back on track.

The economy shrank 3.8% in 2015 and is forecast to drop a further 3.3% this year, a historic recession. Inflation is around 9% and unemployment at 11%.

"I want this to end right now and for Dilma to leave quickly," said Thais Leao, a 62-year-old airport worker in Brasilia, who is opposed to the PT.

"They certainly aren't the only corrupt ones, but since they were in power they have ended up being most under suspicion."

A huge metal barricade has been set up on the esplanade outside Congress to separate possible rival demonstrators as the impeachment trial moves forward. Police said there could be large protests Monday. – Rappler.com