By Maria Lopez Conde, Senior Contributing Reporter
SÃO PAULO, BRAZIL – Nearly half of the 25 high-ranking politicians and businessmen convicted in Brazil’s landmark mensalão trial started turning themselves in to police last Friday and serving their prison sentences. This comes one year after they were found guilty of crimes, such as active corruption and money laundering for their role in a vote-buying scheme in the Brazilian Congress.
Images of the convicted figures inside prison facilities in Brasília began emerging this week, a surprise to many observers who thought the convictions handed down by the Brazil’s Supreme Court (STF) would not stick after several rounds of appeals and delays.
The defendants to turn themselves in late last week included the mastermind of the scheme, José Dirceu, former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s chief of staff; José Genoíno and Delúbio Soares, former president and treasurer of the Workers’ Party (PT), respectively. The country’s highest court ordered that twelve out of the 25 found guilty of participating in the scandal begin serving jail time immediately last Friday.
None of those found guilty in the corruption case had served any prison time until now. The case, which accused several leaders of the PT party for offering monthly bribes to members of Congress in exchange for their support on legislation between 2003 and 2005, had fueled hopes that it might put an end to Brazil’s notorious culture of impunity.
However, a number of appeals filed in September, and the STF’s decision to allow for a retrial for some of those found guilty in the case, had sparked fears that the justice system would fail to enforce its convictions.
Dirceu, Genoíno and Soares have struck a defiant tone, even while turning themselves in, claiming that they are innocent. From prison, the three high-profile mensaleiros, as those convicted in the trial are referred to in Brazilian media, addressed a letter to members of the Workers’ Party who have gathered outside the Papuda complex in their support.
“Your actions support us, feeds us and the political solidarity – an essential value of the Left,” they wrote. “Our thank you is the struggle. We want respect towards the law. We do not accept humiliation, we prefer the risk and dignity of struggle,” the letter, which made its way to the supporters through one of Soares’s lawyers, read.
The three men had first been taken to a closed regime facility in Papuda. On Monday, judge Ademar Silva de Vasconcelos determined that the former PT officials would be transferred to a semi-open sentence facility inside the Center of Internment and Reeducation (CIR), located in the Papuda complex.
The mensaleiros are said to be sharing one cell. They will be required to sleep in prison, but will be allowed to leave during the day.
Other high-profile figures found guilty of charges ranging from corruption to money laundering and forming a illegal conspiracy, such as deputy Romeu Quiroz, Banco Rural’s Katia Rabello and Marcos Valério’s SMP&B’s Simone Vasconcelos also began serving prison sentences.
The man dubbed the operator of the mensalão himself, Marcos Valério, also turned himself in on Friday. Henrique Pizzolato, once the President of Banco do Brasil, is said to have escaped to Italy to avoid capture and remains at large. At least ten politicians and businessmen implicated in the scandal are awaiting their retrials following successful appeals.
On its part, PT officials expressed sadness over the prison sentences and said they would not affect the Workers’ Party’s presidential campaign next year. “The trial was very contaminated by the political environment. Those prisons are lamentable,” the secretary-general of the PT, deputy Paulo Teixeira said.