Thursday, September 19, 2013

Brazilian Court Grants Appeals to 'Mensalão' Scandal Culprits

In a deeply unpopular ruling yesterday, Brazil’s Supreme Court voted to allow some of those convicted in the country’s landmark “mensalão” vote-buying scandal last year to appeal their sentences. According to Folha de São Paulo, prosecutors say the decision to re-open aspects of the case could extend the trial will for months or even years, and it may end with far lighter sentences for some of the accused.

The appeals will only be granted to 12 of the 25 defendants, but among these are some of the most high profile figures in the case, like Jose Dirceiu, a former chief of staff under ex-President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

The 11-member court was evenly split on the issue before senior justice Celso de Mello cast the deciding vote yesterday in a televised debate. The judge had been one of the most vocal critics of those who participated in the mensalão scheme, but said he supported granting the appeals as a matter of due process. In his statement, Mello claimed that in order for the Supreme Court to maintain its legitimacy, it could not “expose itself to external pressures as a result of popular outcry and pressure from crowds.”
Yet despite Mello’s statement, the legal basis for the ruling is highly unusual. As the NYT’s Simon Romero writes:
The appeals involve a rare legal procedure in which close votes on the high court can be held again. The appeals, which are thought to have originated in the 16th-century legal system of Portugal, Brazil’s former colonial ruler, were abolished there in the 1930s. Few Brazilians had even heard of the appeals until the high court considered them in the mensalão trial. 
While few convictions are expected to be overturned, defendants are seeking less stringent prison conditions, including arrangements that allow convicts to leave prison during the day to work. Some legal experts held open the possibility that some defendants could avoid jail time altogether if the trial endured long; crimes committed about a decade ago could be exceeded by the statute of limitations.
If the defendants’ wishes are granted, it will no doubt further the perception that the Brazilian political establishment is incapable or unwilling to crack down on corruption. It would also fuel the same public outrage that contributed to the wave of mass protests in June. O Globo reports that several demonstrators gathered outside of the Supreme Court yesterday, some of whom protested the decision in a particularly unusual way: by hurling slices of pizza at the building. As the Wall Street Journal explains, “pizza” is Brazilian slang for “big investigations that fizzle away in Brazil's daily flood of scandal news, becoming less significant than eating a pizza.”


News Briefs
  • An international tribunal, acting under the Hague's Permanent Court of Arbitration, has ruled that oil giant Chevron has fulfilled its obligations to the Ecuadorean government in damage agreements related to a legal battle over pollution in the Amazon. Ecuador accuses Texaco, which Chevron acquired in 2001, of damaging the environment in the southern Lago Agrio region from 1964 to 1992, affecting some 30,000 inhabitants. However, The Wall Street Journal reports that tribunal found that Ecuador agreed not to pursue further damages in separate agreements in 1995 and 1998. Reuters notes that this is the latest in a series of setbacks for Ecuador, and that in January tribunal will look into Chevron’s charges accusations of fraud against the plaintiffs.
  • On the day before the tribunal’s ruling, La Hora reports that Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa held a press conference in the area affected by the oil company, showing journalists that oil was still present in waste pools throughout the region.  He also took the opportunity to call for a worldwide boycott against Chevron. MercoPress notes that the move puts Correa in an awkward position ahead of a planned trip to Argentina today, because Chevron is the main partner of Argentine oil giant YPF.
  • Plaza Publica takes a look at the mining conflict in the Guatemalan municipality of San Rafael Las Flores, where locals opposed to a silver mining venture clashed with police in a series of deadly conflicts that began in September 2012 and continued for eight months.
  • Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro is making his first state visit to China this weekend, and is expected discuss economic ties with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping. Maduro has touted the meeting as part of a “new geopolitics,” and the two governments have announced that they will partner on a $14 billion development project in the Venezuela’s Orinoco oil belt, the WSJ reports.
  • El Salvador’s El Mundo profiles the 2013 World Ultra Wealth Report, compiled by the UBS/Wealth-X, which provides an interesting look at economic elites in Central America. According to the report, Guatmala has the most so called “Ultra High-Net Worth Individuals” (with a net worth of $30 million and above) in Central America, with 245 individuals matching that description, followed by Honduras with 215 and Nicaragua with 200.
  • Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto announced on Wednesday that at least 58 people are missing after a massive mudslide buried a section of a town near Acapulco. A series of deadly storm in Mexico this week, which have now transformed into Hurricane Manuel, have already killed at least 80 and damaged some 35,000 homes on the west coast.
  • Just the Facts has published a new report (.pdf) on trends in United States security assistance to Latin America and the Caribbean. The report notes that the U.S. has largely scaled back aid to governments around the hemisphere (with the exception of Central American nations), and that the Obama administration -- with few exceptions -- has prioritized counternarcotics efforts over emphasizing human rights and democratic development. The authors also stress that the dominant drug policy paradigm is changing. After years as the main theater in the “war on drugs,” Latin America is emerging as the epicenter of a search for new alternatives. The Just the Facts asserts that for the U.S., it is “time to listen” to calls for drug policy reform in the region.
  • The administration of Uruguayan President Jose Mujica announced earlier this week that he will be meeting with President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia and Otto Perez Molina of Guatemala at the UN General Assembly in New York on September 22. While he is also slated to discuss facilitating the Colombian peace process with Santos, Radio Espectador notes that it is likely that the issue of marijuana regulation will come up, and the fact that all three presidents are in crusaders for drug policy reform has interesting implications for drug policy advocacy in the region.
  • In an exclusive interview with the Associated Press, newly-elected Paraguayan President Horacio Cartes discusses a wide range of issues, including his support for a recently passed 10 percent tax increase on large-scale soy, corn and wheat producers, which he says is necessary to fund social development in the country.