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  April 13, 2018

Miscarriage of Justice: Ex-President Lula's Imprisonment in Brazil

The persecution and prosecution of former president Lula da Silva is a transparent attempt to remove Brazil's most popular candidate from the presidential race because he is also the one most disliked by the country's elite, says CEPR's Mark Weisbrot
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Mark Weisbrot is Co-Director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C. He received his Ph.D. in economics from the University of Michigan. He is author of the book Failed: What the "Experts" Got Wrong About the Global Economy (Oxford University Press, 2015), co-author, with Dean Baker, of Social Security: The Phony Crisis (University of Chicago Press, 2000), and has written numerous research papers on economic policy. He writes a column on economic and policy issues that is distributed to over 550 newspapers by the Tribune Content Agency. His opinion pieces have appeared in The Guardian, New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and most major U.S. newspapers, as well as in Brazil's largest newspaper, Folha de Sao Paulo. He appears regularly on national and local television and radio programs. He is also president of Just Foreign Policy.


SHARMINI PERIES: It's the Real News Network. I'm Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. Protests in support of former President Lula da Silva were organized in cities around the world and in all the major cities in Brazil last Wednesday. Demonstrators demanded his immediate release, saying that his prosecution and conviction were without evidence and legal standing and that they were highly politicized and unfair. Ex-President Lula submitted himself to authorities and was imprisoned last Saturday just after he lost a Supreme Court ruling on whether he could continue to appeal his case in freedom, as the Constitution guarantees. Lula now begins a 12-year prison sentence for convictions of money laundering and corruption. His lawyers continue the appeals process and currently have two habeas corpus motions pending in two different courts. Lula is still the Worker's Party candidate for the October 2018 presidential election. He has long been the frontrunner in the race for the presidency.

Joining me now to analyze Lula's imprisonment is Mark Weisbrot. Mark is president of Just Foreign Policy, and is a co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research. And he's the author of "Failed: What Experts Got Wrong About the Global Economy." He joins us from Washington. Thanks for joining us, Mark.

MARK WEISBROT: Thank you for inviting me, Sharmini.

SHARMINI PERIES: Mark, the biggest gripe that the protesters have is that Lula was convicted without much evidence or upholding basic principles of the law, as Geoffrey Robertson who is the Queen's Counsel and a lawyer appointed to the UN Human Rights Council. Now, Brazil has a court system. Sergio Moro is considered a judge, according to many as a respectable judge, been invited to Harvard, has been invited to various places of judicial recognition. Is considered a almost a crusader when it comes to fighting corruption. Now, observers of Lula's conviction has has a different opinion, like Geoffrey Robertson. So tell us a little bit about why the protesters think the case has no merits and that it was politicized. Was it? And what do you make of this case?

MARK WEISBROT: Well, the judge, Judge Moro, who is unfortunately under Brazilian legal system also the prosecutor in the case, had to prove and to show that Lula actually accepted a gift from this construction company called OAS, and also that it was in return for something that he did for them. And he didn't really show either of those two things in this. You can see the 200 page sentencing document is on the web in both Portuguese and English. I want to read just one little part of it, Section 302, which shows why it's complicated. It's not really that complicated factually, but how he makes it complicated and fudges the issue, the crucial issue.

He says: "This is the crucial matter in this proceeding, because if it is established that the apartment was actually offered to the former president by the OAS group and not paid for its corresponding price, not even for renovations, there will be evidence of its granting by the O AS group of a substantial patrimonial benefit." 'So the two key words are 'offered' and 'granting.' So he confuses whether the company offered this to Lula and whether it was actually granted, that is, Lula accepted it. And he takes in this, in this sentencing document and his decision, the idea that if they offered it and if they did renovations on the apartment, then that's considered a bribe even if Lula never took it.

And of course, Lula never did take it. He never he visited it once, and he testified that he didn't want it and he did not, he had never had title, he never had ownership, he never stayed there. He never used it. So where is the bribe itself? That's where, again, the judge fudges this issue throughout the opinion, presenting all kinds of evidence. And then, of course, for the idea that it was accepted, he relies on one witness. And there were other witnesses who contradicted this witness. But this witness is someone who was convicted of corruption, and he originally told a similar story as Lula. According to the press reports in Folia de Sao Paulo, he was, his plea bargaining was cut off until he gave the story that the court wanted. And then his sentence was reduced from something like sixteen to two years. That is the evidence. There's no material evidence to back him up. So this is really not enough to convict someone, again, when there were conflicting witnesses who were more believable than somebody whose, you know, future in or out of prison was dependent on him saying what the judge wanted to hear.

SHARMINI PERIES: So a case of a plea bargaining and where they would give up Lula in exchange for something in the bargaining.

MARK WEISBROT: Yeah, I mean, his testimony, again, his, his ability to escape a very long prison sentence was dependent. Now, of course, that does happen all the time. But you would expect there to be some material evidence to back up his claims, and that's what they didn't have.

SHARMINI PERIES: Right. Now, many observers of Lula's conviction have said that the prosecuting Judge Sergio Moro is prejudiced against Lula. What else in this case indicates that prosecution, and perhaps the prosecution of Lula, is politicized, and that Moro has some other motive behind all of this?

MARK WEISBROT: Well, there's much in the opinion that displays his animus. But it was also publicly on display when he, for example, ordered the police to come and arrest Lula at his house, take him away for questioning, when he had always agreed voluntarily to questioning, and made a media spectacle out of that. He also had to apologize to the Supreme Court for the release to the public and the media of wiretapped conversations between Lula and his attorney, and Lula and his family, and Lula and Dilma, who was still president at the time.

So there were so many things that he did that showed it was political. And also, then, what happened since July. I mean, he was convicted in July at the trial level. And you know, the Constitution says that the person cannot be held as guilty until their appeals are exhausted. And so, obviously the Supreme Court just recently ruled , and we discussed this, by a 6-5 margin, that despite what the Constitution said Lula could be imprisoned. And they did it all so fast. You know, this is eight months. I mean, the whole idea of interpreting the Constitution in this way which seems to go against what it literally says, is that you don't want people being out on bail for appeals for years and decades. This is just eight months. Everything was done, everything was hastened, the whole process was sped up so quickly and so much because it was obviously intended to prevent him from running for president in October where he had a sizable, and still has, a sizable lead, and would be expected to win.

SHARMINI PERIES: Also, judging from the mainstream outlets , Mark, such as a New York Times on Thursday, and the Foreign Policy magazine, who are all cheering on Lula's imprisonment, saying it represents a blow against corruption. I mean these are hardly institutions that, that, you know, fight corruption. In other cases like here in the U.S. and multiple other places around the world. But here they are particularly focused on fighting corruption when it comes to Brazil and the carwash investigations and so forth. So tell us the the important implications this corruption investigations have in terms of this corrupt class of politicians. And then of course, you know, the people who are fond of Lula and who are on the streets, and many of them from around the world because of Lula's campaign against hunger, he's a world renowned figure when it comes to that. That seems to be a real class dynamic here when it comes to defending and then of course prosecuting Lula. What do you make of that?

MARK WEISBROT: Well, yeah, the whole thing is is political from top to bottom in so many ways. More than I could describe here. And as you mentioned, there's obviously a class dimension because that's who will be represented. And of course, you know, he had major achievements. He left office with 80 percent, 87 percent approval because poverty had been reduced by 55 percent, and extreme poverty by 65 percent, and the minimum wage rose by 76 percent in real terms by 2014 when they impeached Dilma. Everything about this, so there was a huge and still is a huge class divide. The Worker's Party was never really accepted by the traditional elite. And so they seized the opportunity of the recession first to impeach Dilma, without actually a crime, and then to convict Lula with an alleged crime, which was actually more of an alleged thought crime. And, and then they, you know, to prevent him from running.

And you know, the U.S. role in this is also very political. It's hard to imagine the Department of Justice playing such a large role in the investigation if the result were not to move power away from the Workers Party, who they never, the U.S. government never wanted and imposed in many ways. You know, if that weren't the actual intended result of the whole thing. And then that's not to say there wasn't corruption across the border, corruption in the Worker's Party. But this was a case where the whole thing was oriented towards and structured towards its intended result, which is to decapitate the Worker's Party and to remove them from, from power. And that's what it's doing, although it's by no means over yet.

SHARMINI PERIES: Mark, when you look at the mainstream newspapers and how they're covering this case of Lula, whether it's a Washington Post or The New York Times, there's a very clear bent in terms of the importance of dealing with corruption, and the prosecution, and almost cheerleading this illegitimate legal process. What do you make of this kind of coverage?

MARK WEISBROT: Yeah. This is a case, and this is why I'm bothering to go through some of the details, where the role of the media is enormous. It's really deciding, it's really establishing the entire narrative, because you can read, I've read hundreds of articles in the media, international English language media. And the Brazilian press is even worse, in many ways. But in the international media you can't find any articles that really discuss the evidence. And why shouldn't they? Was it really such an open and shut case that they don't even have to look at it? It's quite the opposite. There's hardly any, there's no evidence at all except for, as I mentioned, this one plea-bargained convict that Lula committed a crime. And yet nobody wants to talk about that. They're so interested in framing this as the struggle against corruption and finishing off their writing his obituary every day. That's where the media really plays such a central role and could potentially change the history of Brazil.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Mark. Thank you so much for joining us today.


SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us here on the Real News Network.


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