Brazil Lawmakers Push to Hobble Graft Probe


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BRASÍ LIA—Brazilian lawmakers advanced legislation that would hamper the ability of prosecutors and judges to go after crooked politicians, potentially setting back the country's fight against widespread corruption.

In a vote in the wee hours of Wednesday morning, deputies in the nation's lower house approved a measure that allows defendants to sue judicial authorities who abuse their powers. Prosecutors and judges could be fined and sentenced to prison for alleged offenses including damaging the "honor, dignity and decorum" of their offices.

The move is widely seen as retaliation against Operation Car Wash, the blockbuster graft probe targeting dozens of elected officials, including at least 50 sitting lawmakers.

The vote was the "strongest blow against Car Wash so far by Congress," lead prosecutor Deltan Dallagnol said. "The lower house has signaled the beginning of the end of Car Wash."

Other critics were quick to blast the proposed legislation as a threat to the independence of Brazil's judiciary, one of the few bright spots to emerge from the epic corruption scandal that has wreaked havoc on the country's economy, political establishment and global reputation.

"It isn't good for the society that a judge is afraid of making a decision," said Thiago Bottino, a law professor at Getú lio Vargas Foundation, a university and think tank in Rio de Janeiro.

To become law, the bill must be approved by the Senate and signed by Mr. Temer, who previously said he would veto any attempts to shield politicians from prosecution.

A spokesman for Mr. Temer said Wednesday the president's pledge was aimed at a clause that was eventually was left out of the bill. He said the president would wait until Congress is done with the legislation to decide what and whether to veto.

Political experts are split on whether the president would go along with the measure. Opponents are already calling for Mr. Temer's impeachment over alleged corruption, which he denies. Protesters recently stormed congress, decrying previous attempts by lawmakers to shield themselves from prosecution in the Car Wash scandal.

The legislation could also be overturned by the Supreme Court, experts say.

But Wednesday's efforts show that many lawmakers are unnerved by a probe that is marching relentlessly through the capital's corridors of power.

"Congress is focused on saving its own skin," said Ivar Hartmann, a constitutional expert based Rio de Janeiro. "For lawmakers the choice is being unpopular or going to jail."

The proposed language to punish prosecutors and judges was inserted into a broader anticorruption bill, much of which was crafted by Car Wash prosecutors with the support of millions of citizens. The original "Ten Measures Against Corruption" increased punishment for embezzlement and other crimes.

Lawmakers approved the original bill right after midnight. But they waited until hours later, when most Brazilians were asleep, to radically change the proposed legislation. In addition to establishing potential jail time for judges and prosecutors who act too aggressively, they stripped out a whistleblower clause and weakened authorities' ability to seize suspected illegal assets from defendants in corruption cases.

The Car Wash prosecutors, led by hard-charging Judge Sergio Moro, have become heroes in Brazil, much to the chagrin of powerful figures fingered in the probe, including former President Luiz Iná cio Lula da Silva , former House Speaker Eduardo Cunha , and Senate President Renan Calheiros, all of whom deny wrongdoing.

Defense lawyers have long criticized Mr. Moro and his team for what they say is abuse of their powers. Supporters of the changes say prosecutors enjoy an oversize status and need to be taken down a peg.

"This will make everyone equal before the law and make them answer for their excesses," Representative Arthur Lira, who supported the clause, said after the vote to the chamber's news agency.

But outside Congress the clause is largely seen as a potential deterrent to prosecution. Critics say it opens the door for moves by defendants to delay the process or intimidate law enforcement.

"Everyone loses" with this proposal, said Mr. Bottino, the law professor.

Write to Paulo Trevisani at paulo.trevisani@wsj.com and Luciana Magalhaes at Luciana.Magalhaes@wsj.com


  (END) Dow Jones Newswires
  11-30-161355ET
  Copyright (c) 2016 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.



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