Brazil’s supreme court has capped the country’s biggest-ever political corruption trial by sentencing former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s ex-chief of staff to nearly 11 years in prison for his role in a vote-buying scheme.
Jose Dirceu, who was the chief of staff from 2003-2005 and a top leader of the ruling Workers’ Party (PT), was found guilty in October of running the operation to bribe legislators during Lula’s first term.
On Monday, the court sentenced the 66-year-old lawyer and former fighter to 10 years and 10 months in prison for corruption and conspiracy, and fined him $350,000.
Dirceu, who has not yet been detained, denied all the charges.
The sentence “only aggravates the outrage and ignominy of the whole process”, which “openly violated our constitution and the democratic rule of law”, Dirceu wrote in a blog post.
Lula, Brazil’s popular president from 2003 through 2010, has steadfastly denied being aware of the vote-buying scheme and was not prosecuted.
“The responsibility of the accused is extremely high,” said Justice Joaquim Barbosa, speaking for the court.
“He used his positions of leadership and prominence, both in the Workers’ Party and the federal government,” to engage in corruption, Barbosa said.
Dirceu, one of the main defendants in the massive corruption trial that has seen 25 people convicted, allegedly diverted public funds to pay legislators in the ruling coalition to vote in favour of government initiatives.
The vote-buying scandal nearly cost Lula his re-election in 2006.
But the founder and leader of the leftist PT, now 67, was cleared.
Lula handed over power to his protégé and fellow PT member Dilma Rousseff at the end of his second four-year term. He later underwent successful treatment for cancer.
Last week, six opposition legislators urged prosecutors to investigate Lula over his alleged role in the congressional vote-buying scheme.
Roberto Freire, head of the Socialist People’s Party, said he led the call for a investigation after the weekly Veja published statements by convicted businessman Marco Valerio linking Lula to the plot.
In late October, Valerio was sentenced to 40 years in prison for corruption, embezzlement, money laundering and other charges. He was also given a fine of $1.4m.
Jose Genoino, who headed the PT at the time, and party treasurer Delubio Soares, have also been convicted.
The high-profile sentences have been seen by many in Brazil as evidence that politics is no longer immune from punishment.