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Brazil's top prosecutor files criminal charges against two ex-presidents

Brazil's top prosecutor files criminal charges against two ex-presidents
Former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, right, and his ousted successor, Dilma Rousseff in July. (Eraldo Peres / Associated Press)

Brazil's top prosecutor has charged two former presidents with forming a criminal organization.

Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who served from 2003 to 2011, and his successor, Dilma Rousseff, who was impeached in 2016, were charged with diverting funds from state oil giant Petrobas and other public institutions to their Workers' Party.

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In announcing the charges Tuesday, Atty. Gen. Rodrigo Janot said the losses at Petrobras alone are estimated at $9.33 billion.

The scheme the two presidents allegedly created is being investigated as part of corruption scandal known as Lava Jato, or Car Wash, in which politicians and some of the country's most powerful business executives stand accused of skimming $1 billion in public funds.

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The former presidents have denied the accusations. Six other officials from their political party were also criminally charged.

Brazilians have grown accustomed to seeing their presidents and other political leaders disgraced, severely undermining confidence .

The current president, Michel Temer, is under investigation for allegations that he tried to protect himself by approving payment of hush money to former congressman Eduardo Cunha.

Cunha was impeached and is serving 15 years and four months in prison for corruption, money laundering and tax evasion.

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If Temer is charged, Congress would have to vote on whether to send the case to the Supreme Court for trial. Last month Congress, which is controlled by Temer's Brazilian Democratic Movement Party, considered another case against the president, but voted 263 to 227 against impeaching him and holding a trial.

According to the independent polling company Datafolha, 83% of Brazilians believe Temer was directly involved in corruption schemes, and just 7% approve of his government. The majority of Brazilians also don't trust Congress to make well-informed decisions, with 58% saying its work is bad or very bad, the highest disapproval rate since 1993.

"How can we trust a Congress that votes to keep a man like that in office?" said Edmilson Junior, a computer technician in Sao Paulo. "We need to get rid of all our politicians and start over, but there's nobody to start over with."

Rousseff was impeached in August 2016 for breaking budgetary laws but until this week had never faced criminal charges.

Lula, on the other hand, was convicted in July of accepting $1.2 million in bribes from contractor OAS to help the company win contracts with Petrobras. Prosecutors said he used the money to purchase and renovate a luxury penthouse in the seaside town of Guaruja.

He is appealing the decision but also faces similar charges in another five other cases, in addition to the one filed this week.

In a statement Wednesday, Lula's attorneys called the latest charges against him "ludicrous" and "politically motivated."

"The latest allegations are a complete fabrication, politically motivated in spite of growing international outrage of the behavior of parts of the judiciary, and timed to influence the democratic will of Brazilians," it said. "We will fight these ludicrous, unsubstantiated claims with rigor using all legal avenues open to us."

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Lula is campaigning in northeastern Brazil to drum up support for his run in the 2018 presidential election. Despite his corruption conviction, he continues to be extremely popular and is ahead in the latest polls with 30% of the vote. If his appeal is rejected, Lula would be barred from running for office for eight years.

"I'm going to vote for Lula next year," said Imaculada Lima, a public school teacher here. "He is the only president who has every made any positive changes for us. He isn't corrupt. [Other parties] just want him out of the way so they can take over."

The Car Wash investigation was launched in March 2014 to look into allegations that the country's biggest construction firms were overcharging Petrobras, allowing directors of the oil company to skim money off the top as payment for awarding the contracts.

Brazil construction giant Odebrecht has confessed to paying more than $30 million in bribes to Petrobras officials. Its chief executive, Marcelo Odebrecht, is serving a 19-year sentence for corruption, and the company was ordered to pay a fine of $3.5 billion.

Langlois is a special correspondent.

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