Panel rejects graft charge in boost to Brazil's Temer

The victory for Brazil's president is largely symbolic as the decision to put him on trial rests with the lower house.

    President Michel Temer denies accusations of accepting bribes [Adriano Machado/Reuters]
    President Michel Temer denies accusations of accepting bribes [Adriano Machado/Reuters]

    A congressional committee rejected a recommendation to try Brazil's president for corruption, handing him a symbolic victory on Thursday a day after a former president was convicted of graft.

    The corruption cases against two major Brazilian figures underscored the extent of political turmoil in Latin America's largest country, where a spreading corruption investigation has uncovered a scheme to exchange bribes and kickbacks for political favours and public contracts.

    That probe has led to an accusation that President Michel Temer accepted bribes from a meatpacking executive in exchange for helping the company obtain favourable government decisions. Temer has denied wrongdoing.

    OPINION: The scandal and tragedy of Lula's corruption conviction

    Earlier this week, a legislator appointed to study Temer's case recommended that the charge be accepted, a setback for Temer.

    But on Thursday, a Chamber of Deputies committee rejected that recommendation, swinging the pendulum back in Temer's favour.

    Both moves are largely symbolic. The decision to suspend Temer and put him on trial rests with the full lower house: If two-thirds of the 513 deputies should vote against Temer, lower house Speaker Rodrigo Maia would take over presidential duties while Brazil's Supreme Court tried the president.

    After the contentious committee vote, which occasionally descended into shouting matches, some legislators cried "Temer out!" and "Purchased vote!" Others responded with "Long live Temer!"

    Some legislators complained that the extensive substitution of committee members in recent days made the committee vote a farce. Party leaders have the right to replace their members on committees as they see fit, and Brazilian media reported that parties allied with Temer made several such substitutions - in an apparent bid to guarantee the vote went the president's way.

    The mammoth "Operation Car Wash" investigation has led to political tensions in Brazil between those who consider the prosecutors and judges pursuing corruption to be heroes and those who think some of the prosecutions are politically motivated.

    Al Jazeera's Daniel Schweimler, reporting from Rio de Janeiro, said Temer was in a slightly stronger position than he was before this vote, and that the full congress will possibly meet on Friday or early next week before Congress takes a winter recess until August.

    "So still all to play for - the president himself is convinced that he will win that vote in Congress. He's said all along that he's done nothing wrong, his supporters are backing him. He's trying to get the vote out of the way as quickly as possible - he says so he can govern Brazil," said Schweimler. 

    "His opponents want to try and delay the vote as long as possible - they're convinced there's more evidence out there; that there are corrupt politicians already in prison, already being investigated, who have information about to be released which will implicate Michel Temer and lead to a more sturdy case against him."

    'I am in the game'

    A day after being convicted of corruption, former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, known as Lula, stoked tensions on Thursday with a defiant public defence accusing his political opponents of trying to prevent him from becoming president again.

    A federal judge found Lula guilty on Wednesday and sentenced him to nine and a half years in prison, though he remains free while an appeal is heard.

    Lula told supporters the court had no proof and the conviction was politically motivated. 

    To cheers, he said he wants to run for re-election next year.

    "If anyone thinks that with this sentence they will pull me out of the game, they should know that I am in the game," Lula said. "The only people who can declare my end are the Brazilian people."

    His case now goes before a group of magistrates, and one of those judges promised on Thursday that action will be taken before the October 2018 elections. If they uphold the conviction, Brazilian law says Lula would be barred from seeking office.

    "By August next year, this case will be decided," said Judge Carlos Eduardo Thompson, one of three who will hear the appeal. "Either the court will confirm this decision and he will be unelectable or it will amend the decision and he will be able to run."

    Lula was accused of receiving a beachfront apartment and repairs to the property as kickbacks from construction company OAS. He never owned the apartment, but prosecutors argued it was intended for him.

    OPINION: What next for Brazil's decaying kleptocracy?

    Lula is the highest-profile figure to be convicted in the corruption investigation so far, and the first Brazilian ex-president to be found guilty in a criminal proceeding since the restoration of democracy in the 1980s.

    Al Jazeera's Daniel Schweimler said many Brazilians are becoming cynical towards their politicians as the "Car Wash" saga unfolds.

    "I think they [the general public] are just cynical, tired, bewildered by what's going on - watching from a distance to see what happens next."

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies


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