RIO DE JANEIRO — The judge who is heading the sprawling investigation into corruption at Brazil’s state oil company on Wednesday released recordings of phone taps of former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, including a conversation with his successor, President Dilma Rousseff.
The release, by Judge Sergio Moro, came hours after Rousseff named Silva as her chief of staff — a move critics called a way to shield the former leader from possible detention in corruption probes.
Earlier this month, Silva was taken to a police station to answer questions in the investigation of a bribery scandal at Petrobras, the state oil company. Rumors that he would accept a Cabinet post surfaced shortly afterward.
Under Brazilian law, Silva’s appointment makes it harder for prosecutors to go after the former leader because only Brazil’s Supreme Court can authorize the investigation, imprisonment and trial of Cabinet members and legislators. That special judicial status already applies to Silva because his appointment has appeared in a special edition of the government’s official gazette, although the head of the governing Workers’ Party said the swearing-in ceremony was slated to take place next week.
Globo television network’s G1 Internet portal quoted Moro as saying that “from the tenor of the taped conversations, it is clear that the ex-president already knew or at least suspected he was being taped.”
An attorney for Silva, Cristiano Zanin Martins, condemned the recordings, saying their release was sparking a “social convulsion … which is not the role of the judiciary.”
Police said about 2,000 people were gathering Wednesday evening outside the Planalto presidential palace in the capital, Brasilia, to protest against Silva’s nomination. The newspaper O Estado de S. Paulo said clashes were reported at the gathering.
The release of the recordings was the latest twist in a dramatic saga that has drawn comparisons to the prime time soap operas, or “telenovelas,” for which Brazil is famous.
Silva’s appointment Wednesday capped days of intense speculation and hours-long meetings between the two leaders. Speaking at a news conference after the announcement, Rousseff said she was “very happy.” Rousseff, who herself was chief of staff for Silva in 2005-2010, is facing impeachment proceedings over accusations of fiscal mismanagement unrelated to the Petrobras probe.
“His joining my government strengthens my government,” she said at a news conference before the recordings were released, adding, “Many people don’t want it to be strengthened. But he is coming and he’s coming to help.”
A dexterous political operator, Silva had been seen as Rousseff’s best hope for shoring up support for the government and its agenda by sealing alliances with key centrist and right-leaning parties in Congress and securing the support of social movements. He was also regarded as crucial to blocking the impeachment proceedings against Rousseff.
At the news conference, Rousseff vehemently denied that Silva accepted the post to delay investigations against him, stressing that Cabinet ministers’ special judicial standing does not grant them immunity.
“It doesn’t mean that he will not be investigated,” Rousseff said. “It’s a question of whom he will be investigated by.”
The opposition excoriated Wednesday’s announcement, and analysts predicted it could dramatically weaken Rousseff.
“Dilma will be surrendering the presidency to Lula,” said Thiago de Aragao of the Brasilia-based Arko Advice political consulting firm. “He will become the new president.”
Aragao predicted Silva would take over key decisions on political and economic matters and said the appointment underscores “the high level of concern with his (Silva’s) possible imprisonment and with the end of the government with Dilma’s impeachment.”
Silva, a former metalworker who entered politics as a labor union leader, presided over years of galloping economic growth that saw tens of millions of people lifted out of grinding poverty. Although a bribes-for-votes scandal took down one of his chiefs of staff, he was wildly popular when he left office in 2010.
His support has since slipped along with Brazil’s economy and the mushrooming Petrobras corruption probe that has implicated numerous members of his Workers Party and now embroiled Silva himself.
Rousseff had been untouched by the turmoil, but the Supreme Court on Tuesday accepted a plea bargain by the party’s former leader in the Senate, Delcidio do Amaral, who alleged Rousseff at least knew about wrongdoing at Petrobras, which she formerly oversaw.
The scandal also has ensnared many opposition figures, including lower house Speaker Eduardo Cunha, who has spearheaded the so-far unsuccessful efforts to impeach Rousseff.
Amaral was detained late last year on allegations of obstructing the Petrobras probe, and Tuesday’s release of hundreds of pages of his testimony to investigators sent shockwaves throughout Brazil’s political class.
In the document, Amaral said Rousseff knew about a scheme to buy a refinery in the United States at an inflated price. He also alleged Silva ordered him to make payouts to another key operator of the Petrobras scheme to protect a close friend.
Both Rousseff and Silva have repeatedly denied any wrongdoing, and most of those mentioned in the plea deal disputed the allegations.
This week’s political turmoil came on the heels of nationwide protests against Rousseff and her Workers’ Party that brought an estimated 3 million people onto the streets Sunday. Newspapers called them the biggest political demonstrations in Brazilian history.
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