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Brazil's biggest bribery trial gets under way on Thursday, with 38 former party and government officials facing vote-buying charges in a case that could tarnish popular ex-president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.
In what the press here has billed as “the trial of the century”, ex-ministers, lawmakers, businessmen and bankers appear before the 11-member Supreme Court in connection with an alleged vote-buying scheme in Congress between 2002 and 2005.
Known as “Mensalao” (big monthly payments), the scandal embroils Lula's Workers Party (PT) and ruling coalition but more broadly sheds light on the now reviled corrupt practices of the entire political establishment.
According to charges that first surfaced in 2005 during Lula's first term, PT members allegedly offered bribes to members of Congress in exchange for their votes.
Prosecutors allege that the bribe money was skimmed from the advertising budgets of state-owned companies through a company owned by businessman Marcos Valerio de Souza, one of the accused.
The defendants face charges of embezzlement, money laundering, corruption and fraud which could carry sentences of up to 45 years in jail.
Lula, the founder and leader of the leftist party who served as president from 2003 to 2010, is not among the defendants, all of whom are free.
The ex-president maintained that he was betrayed and he offered public apologies on behalf of the PT.
But a lawyer for Labor Party lawmaker Roberto Jefferson, who exposed the vote-buying scheme in 2005, said he would ask during the trial why Lula is not among the accused.
The scandal has been receiving blanket coverage from the Brazilian media and the outcome of the trial, expected to last at least one month, could affect the October municipal elections which will set the political map ahead of the 2014 presidential poll.
Some analysts believe the trial could help the opposition in the municipal elections.
“It is a test for the Brazilian political system. Its credibility is at stake,” said David Fischer, a political scientist at Brasilia University.
The lawyer for the main defendant, Jose Dirceu, Lula's former chief of staff, insisted there was no Mensalao.
“There was no so-called vote-buying. There is no proof of any use of public money. Dozens of witnesses categorically say that Dirceu had no knowledge of the loans and (money) transfers,” lawyer Jose Luiz Oliveira Lima told the daily O Globo Wednesday.
The trial is to start with a report read by Supreme Court justice Joaquim Barbosa. Attorney General Roberto Gurgel, who called the case “the most daring and outrageous corruption scheme and embezzlement of public funds ever seen in Brazil,” will then make the case for the prosecution.
Friday, the court will hear arguments from the defence. - Sapa-AFP