Judge Sergio Moro, the lead prosecutor in Operation Lava-jato, a two-year investigation into corruption at the state-run oil company, Petrobras, released nearly 50 audio recordings to the media on Wednesday evening, prompting chaotic scenes in congress as opposition deputies demanded Rousseff’s resignation.
On Thursday morning Lula was sworn in as a cabinet minister amid chaotic scenes inside and outside the presidential palace in Brasília.
Supporters inside the gallery where the ceremony took place started chanting his name as he walked in, while an opposition congressman who shouted “shame” was quickly bundled out.
Thousands of protesters congregated outside the presidential palace where government supporters, dressed in the red colours of the ruling Partido dos Trabalhadores, squared off against protesters dressed mainly in the yellow and green strip of the Brazilian football team.
On Wednesday night tens of thousands of Brazilians had gathered in São Paulo, Brasília, Belo Horizonte and other major cities to demand the president’s resignation. In Brasília, riot police fired tear gas and stun grenades at more than 5,000 demonstrators outside the presidential palace and Congress building. Many waved banners calling for Lula’s arrest. Thousands more demonstrators packed the main Avenue Paulista in São Paulo.
Earlier in the day, Lula was appointed cabinet chief in a controversial move that Rousseff said would strengthen her government, but which critics argued was an attempt to shield the former president, who is under investigation for corruption and money-laundering, from prosecution.
Under Brazilian law, government ministers can be tried only in the “privileged forum” of the supreme court. Opposition activists believe any trial in Brazil’s highest court is likely to progress much more slowly than in the federal court.
They also believe that the supreme court justices – many of whom were appointed by Lula and Rousseff – may prove far more sympathetic than Moro. The judge, from the southern city of Curitiba, has already handed down a number of severe sentences for some of Brazil’s top businessmen who have been found guilty of involvement in the Petrobras scandal.
In the most damaging conversation, recorded on Wednesday afternoon, Rousseff tells Lula that she is sending him over his ministerial papers “in case of necessity”. The Brazilian media and opposition have interpreted the remarks to mean that she was giving him the papers quickly so that Lula could show them to police to avoid detention.
A note published on the presidential palace website late on Wednesday disputed the opposition’s interpretation of the call. It states that Rousseff sent Lula the terms of office for him to sign in case he was unable to attend the swearing-in ceremony, due to take place in Brasília at 10am on Thursday. It also said that the presidency would be pursuing legal action against Moro.
The former president is accused of receiving benefits-in-kind from construction companies involved in the Petrobras scandal. Prosecutors allege he is the real owner of two luxury properties registered in the names of others. Lula denies the charges.
On 4 March, he was briefly detained by police in São Paulo and taken in for “coercive questioning”, along with his wife, Marisa Letícia, and his eldest son, Fábio Luiz. On his release, a highly emotional Lula told supporters he had felt he had been “kidnapped” and questioned why Moro had used such an aggressive tactic when he had repeatedly offered to testify over the case.
That same day he also vented his frustrations to Rousseff, in another phone call that was secretly recorded by investigators and released by Moro to the press on Wednesday evening.
In that recording Lula lambasted Moro’s actions as “an unprecedented firework display”, after Rousseff noted the coincidence of damaging revelations being leaked to the press the day before his detention.
Lula added that the prosecutors in charge of the case “think that with the press leading the investigative process they are going to re-found the republic. We have a totally cowardly supreme court, a totally cowardly high court, a totally cowardly parliament … a speaker of the house who is fucked, a president of the senate who is fucked, I don’t know how many legislators under threat, and everyone thinking that some kind of miracle is going to happen.”
Notably, however, in that same conversation Lula also said “he would never enter government to protect myself”.
Moro’s decision both to record the phone conversations between the former and current president and to release them to the press has come in for severe criticism, even by those appalled by Lula’s decision to join the government.
The judge justified the decision by stating that the conversations were in the public interest. “Democracy in a free society requires that the governed know what their governors are doing, even when they try to act in the dark,” he wrote.
Moro also said he believes Lula had advance warning of the raid on 4 March and may have known his phone was tapped.
The latest revelations will intensify yet further the political polarisation in the country. By midnight on Wednesday there were reports of demonstrations against the government in at least 17 of Brazil’s 26 states.. In Rio de Janeiro, Adriana Balthazar, from the Vem Pra Rua protest movement, told the newspaper Folha de São Paulo that if Rousseff did not resign, there would be further protests. Other opposition activists want to organise a general strike starting next week.
In tense scenes at Thursday’s demonstrations a police cordon establishing a 50 metre gap between the two groups broke down, as anti-government activists broke through the police lines to taunt the other side.
“I came here for free,” they chanted, referring to the widespread allegation that PT supporters are in the pay of the government. “Fascists, fascists,” the government supporters shouted back. Police on horseback moved in on several occasions to restore order as firecrackers exploded and threats were exchanged.
Photojournalist Karina Zambrana, 26 said she was attending today’s pro-government protests in defence of democracy. “This is a very dangerous moment,” she said. “The major media organizations in Brazil are whipping people into a frenzy so they want war. We don’t want war. We are here for democracy.”
Civil servant Dimitri Silveira, 33, said he was not looking for conflict but that protesters were seeking to provoke government supporters. “We don’t want conflict. We want to defend our democratically-elected president but it seems all of our country’s institutions - the police, the judiciary - are against us,” he said.
Anti-government activists, however, have vowed to continue demonstrating until Rousseff leaves office.
“[This government] are robbing us and they have no shame,” Gustavo Bertosi, a 23-year old law student said.Asked whether he thought there was the possibility of conflict between the two sides, he smiled and said yes.
Ernesto Junior, 42, who described himself as a failed businessman, said “I just want what is best for the country. It’s not about right or left. No one can accept what is going on.”
Last Sunday, millions of Brazilians took part in the largest anti-government protests the country has ever seen. A pro-government rally is planned for Friday.
On top of the corruption allegations, Brazil is suffering from its worst recession in at least 25 years, with the economy shrinking 3.8% last year, and the forecast for 2016 similar.
ousseff is also facing separate impeachment proceedings, accused of illegally using state banks to plug budget deficits. Another case against her, in the supreme electoral court, claims her presidential campaign in 2014 was financed with cash from the Petrobras scandal. Last week, Rousseff insisted to the press she had no intention of resigning.
Brazil’s entire political class is now in the firing line. Opposition politicians who attempted to join Sunday’s anti-government protests were booed and forced to leave. Alongside Lula and Rousseff, Brazil’s vice-president, speaker of the house, president of the senate and main opposition leader have all been accused of involvement in the Petrobras corruption scandal.
Transcript of call between Rousseff and Lula, 16 March
Rousseff: Lula, let me tell you something.
Lula: Tell me, my love.
Rousseff: It’s this, I am sending Messias [Jorge Rodrigo Araújo Messias, deputy head of legal affairs at the cabinet office] round with the papers, so that we have them, just in case of necessity, that is the terms of office, right?
Lula: Uh-huh. Ok, ok.
Rousseff: That’s all, wait there, he is heading there.
Lula: OK, I’m here. I’ll wait.
Lula: Bye, my love.