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article imageBrazil Congress speaker to face trial for corruption

By Damian Wroclavsky (AFP)     Mar 3, 2016 in World

Brazil's Supreme Court voted Thursday to put the powerful speaker of the lower house of Congress, Eduardo Cunha, on trial for bribery, injecting new drama into a sprawling corruption crisis.

Cunha, a key opponent of President Dilma Rousseff, is accused of taking $5 million in bribes as part of a vast embezzlement and bribery network centered on the country's national oil company Petrobras.

The Supreme Court's 10 judges voted unanimously to indict Cunha on charges that he took the bribes for facilitating a $1 billion contract to build two oil drilling ships for Petrobras.

Cunha, who rejects the charges, is also being investigated by the congressional ethics committee over allegedly lying to Congress about possessing secret Swiss bank accounts.

Considered a master backroom dealer, Cunha is part of the PMDB party, which is in an uncomfortable alliance with Rousseff's Workers' Party.

However, he has split off to make himself the fulcrum of an anti-Rousseff movement and last year initiated impeachment procedures against her for allegedly breaking government fiscal laws.

His downfall could help Rousseff, who is also struggling against allegations in electoral court that she improperly financed her 2014 re-election.

However, Rousseff was hit by a potential bombshell report in a Brazilian magazine claiming that one of her most senior former allies -- a Workers' Party senator also accused of corruption in the Petrobras scandal -- is preparing to testify against her.

Senator Delcidio do Amaral was arrested last November and according to IstoE magazine is negotiating a plea bargain in which he would testify that Rousseff obstructed the Petrobras probe, dubbed Operation Car Wash. He was also allegedly set to testify against Rousseff's predecessor Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

Even though there was no confirmation of the report, Rousseff struck back with a statement denouncing "abuse of leaks as a political weapon." And the solicitor general, Jose Eduardo Cardozo, said that any plea bargain would be "a pile of lies."

Lawyers for Amaral put out a statement denying knowledge of the information in the magazine's report.

Markets reacted jubilantly to the apparent blow to Rousseff, who is blamed by many for the depth of a recession that is on track to become the worst ever recorded in Brazil.

The stock market in Sao Paulo jumped 5.12 percent and the real rose 2.34 to $3.803.

- 'House of Cards' character -

Operation Car Wash has seen charges filed against a Who's Who of Brazilian politicians and businessmen. These include numerous high-ranking figures from Rousseff's party, also including a former treasurer and her former main campaign advisor.

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff (L) speaks next to President of the Senate Renan Calheiros (C) an...
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff (L) speaks next to President of the Senate Renan Calheiros (C) and President of the Chamber of Deputies Eduardo Cunha during solemn opening session of the year in Brasilia on February 2, 2016
Evaristo Sa, AFP/File

Cunha, who is part of Brazil's right-wing Evangelical movement, could technically hang on to his post as speaker, even during a trial, but is facing growing pressure to step down.

Throughout the impeachment struggle with Rousseff, he has proved adept at outmaneuvering opponents, earning half-joking comparisons to Frank Underwood, the anti-hero of the HBO television series "House of Cards."

In December, police raided his homes, seizing a cellphone, computer and documents.

He accused prosecutors of persecuting him in retaliation for his impeachment drive. However, his critics on the left accused him repeatedly of the opposite: that he was wielding the impeachment weapon as revenge for his own troubles.

Although Cunha's troubles are high profile, Congress has long been a magnet for politicians with legal problems.

A count by respected website Congresso em Foco last year found that 30 percent of the members on a panel convened to study Rousseff's impeachment were facing criminal probes.

Petrobras, long considered Brazil's flagship company, is in deep crisis due to the plunge in global oil prices and the fallout from the corruption scandal, which is estimated to have cost some $2 billion.

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