The long-running corruption scandal that has gripped — and perplexed — Brazilians for months reached a new level this week as state prosecutors filed for the "preventive arrest" of former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva on money-laundering and criminal misrepresentation charges.
The request, made to a Sao Paulo court Thursday, with a ruling expected Monday, was dismissed by political and legal observers as weak, flawed and unlikely to lead to Lula's arrest, but nevertheless considerably increases the pressure on Lula and President Dilma Rousseff's beleaguered Workers' Party government.
The document filed by Sao Paulo state prosecutors accuses Lula of money laundering in relation to the ownership of a triplex apartment in the resort city of Guaraja, a charge Lula has denied on multiple occasions. The apartment is owned by OAS, one of the construction companies implicated in Operation Car Wash, a federal investigation into corruption in and around Petrobras, the partly state-owned oil and gas company.
The Car Wash investigation led to search warrants being carried out at Lula's home last Friday, at the Lula Institute and various other addresses. It also led to the ex-president's detention for questioning by federal police. Jose Crispiniano, a spokesman for Lula and for the institute, called Lula's detention for forced questioning illegal and alleged that the officers carrying out the search of the institute also illegally demanded the password to the organization's email system, and have since accessed and frozen unrelated email accounts.
The petition for Lula's arrest and last week's judicial orders are just the latest problems facing the Workers' Party government.
In what may be the most damaging allegations yet against the party of Lula and Rousseff, what is allegedly a copy of a deposition by a Workers' Party senator was published last week by a Brazilian magazine, IstoE, in which Sen. Delcidio do Amaral, a target of Operation Car Wash, states that Rousseff attempted to interfere with the investigation by pressuring judges.
For Pablo Ortellado, a professor of public policy and management at the University of Sao Paulo, those allegations, if true, would dwarf the accusations facing both Lula and Rousseff. Rousseff is the subject of an impeachment process, related not to Car Wash but to irregularities in the annual budget. The evidence in that process, says Ortellado, is accounts-based, and though "embarrassing and deplorable," is relatively weak.
"But if the new allegations are confirmed," he said, "they would constitute very serious grounds for impeachment."
At a news conference Friday, Rousseff defended Lula, asserting her pride in her predecessor as well as her determination to stay on as president. Asked whether she would resign, she replied, "Do I look like someone who is going to resign?"
Reports emerged during the course of the week that Rousseff has offered Lula a position as a minister in her government, a move widely seen as an attempt to provide legal shelter for him. Rousseff did not comment Friday on the alleged offer.
As a private citizen, Lula is open to investigation by the Car Wash task force, and to questioning and imprisonment, should a judge so rule. As a minister, his case would transfer to the Supreme Court in Brasilia, the capital, out of the direct control of the Car Wash operation, which is based in Curitiba.
In turn, political analysts say, Rousseff needs Lula, the most influential, powerful figure within the Workers' Party, to help rally support for her government and for her presidency.
"Dilma is not a political leader," said Ortellado. "She depends entirely on the support of the [Workers' Party], whose principal leader is Lula."
According to Ortellado, that support will remain essential as the crisis gripping the country unfolds.
The best-case scenario for the government at the moment, said Ortellado, would be for things to stay as they are: "Which is not a stable situation by any means, and nor is it likely," he said.
Increasing pressure around the government, particularly if the impeachment process advances, would ratchet up tensions in an already polarized government. One thing, however, does seem certain.
"We are still a very long way from hitting rock bottom," Ortellado said.
Rigby is a special correspondent.