Former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (right) is seen with Jose Dirceu at the presidential palace in Brasilia, Brazil. On Monday, Brazil's Supreme Court sentenced Dirceu to nearly 11 years in prison on corruption charges. File photo: Eraldo Peres

Brasilia - A chief of staff to former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and fellow founder of Brazil's ruling Workers' Party was sentenced on Monday to over 10 years in prison for running a congressional vote-buying scheme almost a decade ago.

Culminating the biggest political corruption trial in modern Brazilian history, the once-powerful Jose Dirceu, 66, received a 10-year and 10-month sentence for heading a bribery scheme in which Workers' Party officials and associates paid lawmakers a monthly retainer in exchange for support of their initiatives during the early years of Lula's first term.

The high-profile case, heard by Brazil's Supreme Court, has gripped Brazil for more than a month, bringing an unprecedented level of accountability to a country long-accustomed to widespread corruption.

For many Brazilians, the convictions show that their country's democratic institutions while not perfect have matured, especially a judicial system that historically was unable and often unwilling to tackle corrupt politicians. The trial has been all the more surprising because the Workers' Party is still in power and most of the justices were appointed by Lula or his chosen successor, President Dilma Rousseff.

The court sentenced Jose Genoino, the president of the Workers’ Party when the scandal broke in 2005, to six years and 11 months in prison, and its then-Treasurer Delubio Soares got eight years and 11 months. Dirceu was also ordered to pay a 676 000 reais fine.

Last month, the court convicted 25 people, including Dirceu, for diverting at least $35-million in public money to bribe legislators to support Lula's minority government during his first two years in office.

Lula's first term, from 2003 through 2006, was crippled by the scandal though the former president, amid an economic boom, was easily re-elected for a second four-year term. Lula, who was not charged in the scandal, has denied any knowledge of the scheme and has even suggested it never existed.

Though Lula remains Brazil's most popular politician, the convictions have tarnished the memory of his time in office and marred his legacy.

Dirceu, who helped Lula found the Workers' Party in 1980, was found guilty of corruption and conspiring with others to break the law by running the scheme. Known as the mensalao, or “big monthly payment”, the plot diverted public funds through front companies to pay the lawmakers.

It remains unclear when Dirceu and the others convicted will be arrested or how much time they will actually serve because the sentences could still be subject to legal challenges. House arrest remains a possibility for at least part of their terms, though their passports have already been confiscated to reduce the possibility that they could flee.

Dirceu, the most powerful man in Lula's cabinet who had been seen as his natural successor as president, was forced to resign when the scandal broke in 2005 and banned from politics, the end of a career that began as a communist student leader and urban guerrilla who fought military dictatorship four decades ago.

If Dirceu goes to prison it won't be the first time. He was arrested in 1968 by the military and freed in exchange for the kidnapped US ambassador, a story that became the basis of the 1997 film Four Days In September. - Reuters