08 Nov 2019
Brazil’s Supreme Court ruled on Thursday that defendants cannot be imprisoned before all their appeals are exhausted, marking a setback for graft investigations that have led to the convictions of dozens of high-ranking politicians and business leaders.
The ruling, which reverses policy adopted in 2016, means that former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who is serving an eight-year sentence for graft and money laundering, and others who have been convicted of various crimes could be released soon, according to legal experts.
Mr. da Silva’s lawyers said in a statement they will meet with him Friday morning and file for his immediate release.
The Supreme Court said local judges are free to accept or deny any release requests based on the new decision. Celso de Mello, the most senior justice on the high court who sided with the majority, said judges must enforce constitutional limits to prosecution. He added that defendants could still remain in custody if they have been deemed a flight risk or too dangerous to remain free, for example.
The 11-member court decision opens the door for defendants to avoid prison for years as their cases make their way through Brazil’s notoriously slow courts. In all, the ruling could affect nearly 5,000 people, according to official data, including 38 out of 159 convicted in Brazil’s sprawling Car Wash corruption probe, prosecutors say.
“This is a big loss for efforts to fight corruption,” Justice Edson Fachin, who sided with the minority in the 6-to-5 decision, told reporters.
Vera Chemin, a constitutional lawyer in São Paulo, called the ruling “a regrettable setback in the fight against corruption” that will slow down Brazil’s courts even further.
Justices for years have tried to strike a balance between a constitutional clause stating that no person should be considered guilty until all legal resources are exhausted and the use of multiple appeals to avoid punishment—a loophole exploited over time by defendants from confessed murderers to white-collar criminals.
By Paulo Trevisani, The Wall Street Journal, 7 November 2019
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