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article imageBrazil court okays probe of Lula in criminal corruption ring

By Eugenia Logiuratto (AFP)     Oct 6, 2016 in World

Brazil's ex-president Luiz Ignacio Lula da Silva will be probed for alleged membership in a crime ring that organized the mass looting of the state oil company Petrobras, the Supreme Court said Thursday.

Justice Teori Zavascki authorized the inclusion of Lula -- who already faces related corruption charges -- in a group of politicians suspected of organizing an embezzlement ring at Petrobras.

The politicians are from Lula's leftist Workers' Party, which ruled Brazil the last 13 years; the center-right Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (BDMP) of new president Michel Temer; and its conservative ally the Progressive Party (PP).

Prosecutors had previously named Lula, 70, as the mastermind of the huge corruption scheme in which a network of executives, politicians and big contractors plundered Brazil's flagship national company.

Money went into party coffers and private accounts in a dizzying pay-to-play network of bribes and inflated contracts dished out by Petrobras to firms like Brazilian international construction colossus Odebrecht.

The probe into the scheme, codenamed Operation Carwash, has already seen a Who's Who of Brazilians investigated, charged or convicted, shaking the country's elite to the core.

No concrete evidence has been presented so far of Lula's role as the ringleader.

However, Prosecutor General Rodrigo Janot asked the Supreme Court to put Lula in the crosshairs of the new probe, which targets "an organized criminal group led and organized by political figures... with the aim of enabling the illicit enrichment of them and of business groups, as well as of electoral campaigns."

- Lula claims persecution -

The former union leader and president has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing, saying his multiple legal problems related to the Petrobras scheme are part of a campaign to block him from returning to power in the 2018 presidential election.

On Wednesday, Lula was charged separately with having taken a bribe over a sweetheart deal obtained by a nephew from Odebrecht for a hydroelectric project in Angola.

Lula faces corruption trial
Lula faces corruption trial
Gustavo IZUS, Anella Reta, Gal ROMA, AFP

Lula was earlier charged with taking bribes from OAS, another construction company that, like Odebrecht, has been linked to the Petrobras scheme.

Lula served as president from 2003 to the end of 2010. He left office with sky-high ratings and international approval for his work lifting tens of millions of Brazilians from poverty while presiding over an economic boom.

He remains one of the most popular potential candidates for 2018, opinion polls show.

However, the Workers' Party, which he founded, was trounced in municipal elections on Sunday and Lula's legacy has been severely tainted by the corruption scandals and the steep decline of the economy.

His chosen successor, Dilma Rousseff, was impeached and removed from the presidency in August after being found guilty of breaking budget laws. Temer, her former vice president turned political enemy, took over the presidency.

If Lula is convicted of a crime, he could be barred from political office for a period stretching well beyond the 2018 election.

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