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Brazil targets corruption in 'trial of the century'

Thirty-six political players are on trial in Brazil, facing charges from money laundering to organized crime. The trial is seen as a landmark case in a country where corruption rarely leads to criminal prosecution.

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Brazilian Supreme Court judges begin deliberations in a case involving a cash-for-votes scheme that could tarnish the legacy of hugely popular former President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva and the ruling party, in Brasilia, Brazil, Aug. 2.

Fabio Pozzebom/AP

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In Brazil, where personal graft has been part of the political landscape since the Portuguese landed, the Supreme Court is trying more than three dozen of the country’s best known political movers and shakers. It might not reverse centuries of the status quo, but it is being billed as “the trial of the century.”

The 38 accused face charges ranging from money laundering to tax evasion to organized crime, stemming from the so-called mensalao scheme (mensalao means big monthly payment in Portuguese), in which the government of former president Luiz Inacio Lula daSilva allegedly paid deputies in return for congressional backing.

Prosecutor Roberto Gurgel called the scheme “without doubt the most daring and scandalous case of corruption and embezzlement ever uncovered in Brazilian history.”

Defense attorneys dismissed the accusations as a “legal illusion,” “unfounded, incomplete, and intimidating,” and said the process was akin to the “Nuremberg trials.”

Who is right won’t be known until rulings are made, probably some time next month. But the trial is significant for reasons that go beyond the eventual verdicts.

First, although corruption in Brazil is endemic, it rarely leads to criminal prosecution and almost never when politicians are involved, so this is widely considered a step forward for Brazilian justice.

It also highlights the widespread use of illegal financing in political campaigns. One of the most surprising things to emerge from the first week of testimony is how the accused are arguing the money they were siphoning off from public accounts went to campaign slush funds, rather than to pay off allies. Such slush funds are illegal, but the accused are betting the accusation is of lesser gravity because of public tolerance.

The trial comes at a sensitive time, just weeks before October’s municipal elections to elect more than 5,500 mayors across the vast South American country, and as a wave of strikes by federal workers threaten President Rousseff’s huge popularity.

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