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Sentencing begins in Brazil corruption trial

RIO DE JANEIRO -- A political corruption trial seen as a turning point toward cleaner governance in Brazil is nearing its end, with the country's Supreme Court starting to hand down tough sentences this week against powerful defendants.

Twenty five people have been convicted on charges related to the funneling of public money into political campaigns and a cash-for-votes scheme in the legislature. The court adjourned Thursday due to a judge's health problem and will likely resume discussions of sentencing of the convicted in the second week of November.

The trial has riveted Brazil for months, with results that have tarnished the reputation of the governing Workers' Party. The alleged corruption dates back to the government of former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, though he has not been charged and denies the schemes happened.

The accused included Jose Dirceu de Oliveira e Silva, who was Silva's chief of staff, and a host of other politicians, consultants and bankers. Jose Dirceu, as he is known, pleaded not guilty, but was convicted of racketeering and leading the vote-buying in Congress during Silva's first term in office, among other charges.

The first sentence, which came Wednesday, was for Marcos Valerio de Souza, a consultant considered the key operator in the cash distribution scheme. So far, he's been condemned to more than 40 years in prison and fined more than $1.3 million. Both will be recalibrated once a last judge has his say, and he'll be eligible to serve in a more lenient, semi-open prison system after completing one-sixth of the sentence.

To many in this country where public service has long been marred by corruption and impunity, the sentence was a powerful message signaling improving political health. The country's main newspapers reported it with above-the-fold headlines, trumpeting "the hour of punishment."

The Supreme Court has also determined that consultant Marcos Valerio de Souza acted under Jose Dirceu's command. On Wednesday, judge Joaquin Barbosa noted that "Marcos Valerio agreed to take part in this criminal enterprise headed by Jose Dirceu to seize political power."

Brazilians followed minute-by-minute on news sites the judges' discussion of sentences for Valerio's former business partner, Ramon Hollerebach, and wondered what this could mean for Jose Dirceu, who was once considered a likely presidential candidate. He resigned his post when the scandal broke in 2005.

Political analyst Matthew Taylor, author of "Judging Policy: Courts and Policy Reform in Democratic Brazil," called the sentencing "a watershed for Brazil." He noted that this is the first major political corruption scandal where the Supreme Court found the defendants guilty.

This has real weight, since the Supreme Court has traditionally been very deferential toward power and constrained by the cumbersome rules of Brazilian justice, he said.

Still, Taylor, a professor at the American University in Washington, cautioned against investing the case with too much significance. Brazil has made significant strides in promoting accountability in government and combatting corruption at various levels, but the judicial system is lagging behind, he said.

"The courts remain the chief bottleneck for justice in Brazil," Taylor said. "While this case is very important, it is the exception that proves the rule."

He said one of problems impeding justice is the glacial pace of the courts, noting it took seven years for this case to reach the Supreme Court. He also pointed to the special privileges afforded to politicians, including the right to be heard directly in Brazil's highest court, and to a plethora of avenues for appeal available to the elite.

"The fact that there are special privileges for politicians is anachronistic for a democracy as vibrant as Brazil," he said.