Corruption trial makes black Brazilian judge a hero

Thu Nov 1, 2012 12:14pm EDT
 
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By Anthony Boadle and Ana Flor

BRASILIA (Reuters) - As the biggest corruption trial in Brazilian history comes to an end with convictions of once-powerful politicians, at least one hero has emerged from the mess -- the first black member of the country's Supreme Court.

People stop Justice Joaquim Barbosa in the street to thank him. Revelers in Rio de Janeiro have been buying Barbosa carnival masks and wearing them in demonstrations. His childhood picture recently graced the cover of the country's biggest newsweekly with the caption "The Poor Boy Who Changed Brazil."s

The gratitude follows Barbosa's dogged pursuit of guilty verdicts against some of the closest associates of former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva for their involvement in a widespread vote-buying scandal seven years ago.

A bricklayer's son who worked as a cleaner and typesetter to pay his way through law school, Barbosa oversaw the landmark trial. The court last month convicted 25 people, including Lula's former chief of staff, Jose Dirceu, for diverting at least $35 million in public money to bribe legislators to support his minority government after it took office in 2003.

In the first sentence, handed down last week, a businessman at the center of the bribery operation got 40 years in prison for money-laundering and fraud. Dirceu is expected to get jail time too.

The trial surprised a country where courts traditionally have let corrupt politicians get away with little more than a slap on the wrist. It also brought welcome recognition for a minority official in a country, Latin America's biggest, where most top jobs are still held by whites even though half the population identifies itself as being black or of mixed descent.

For many Brazilians, the bribery convictions were proof that their country's democratic institutions, while not perfect, have matured. The trial, they believe, marks a turning point in Brazil's long history of corruption and impunity.

"There has been too much tolerance of notorious cases of corruption," said Paulo Brossard, a former Supreme Court justice. "There was even a governor about whom people would say 'he steals but he gets things done.' I hope this case will bring an improvement in our public life."   Continued...

 
Justice Joaquim Barbosa attends the "mensalao" or "big monthly payments" trial at the Supreme Court in Brasilia, October 4, 2012. As the biggest corruption trial in Brazilian history comes to an end with convictions of once-powerful politicians, at least one hero has emerged from the mess, Barbosa, the bricklayer's son who is the first black member of the Supreme Court. Picture taken October 4, 2012. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino