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Senior judge blocks Brazilian cabinet post for ex-president Silva

Published 19/03/2016

Demonstrators attend a rally in in Sao Paulo (AP)
Demonstrators attend a rally in in Sao Paulo (AP)

A Supreme Court justice has suspended former Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva's appointment to a cabinet post amid a corruption investigation, calling it a clear attempt to help the once popular ex-leader get around his legal woes.

Justice Gilmar Mendes's decision was set to stoke already high tensions and came shortly after tens of thousands of supporters of Brazil's centre-left government rallied to back Mr Silva and his successor Dilma Rousseff. Anti-government protests over the weekend brought about three million people on to the streets nationwide.

"The goal of the falsity is clear: prevent the carrying out of preventative arrest order" against Silva being considered by a lower court, Judge Mendes wrote in her ruling.

Two weeks ago, Mr Silva was taken in for questioning in a sprawling investigation into an alleged kickback scheme in the state oil company Petrobras. If he becomes a cabinet minister, he can only be prosecuted with the approval of the Supreme Court.

Judge Mendes's decision leaves Mr Silva, and Latin America's largest nation, in limbo. The government is likely to appeal against the decision, which will eventually have to be decided by the full court.

The political turmoil comes as Brazil prepares to host the Summer Olympics in August and Latin America's most populous nation faces crises on several fronts. The country is at the centre of an outbreak of the Zika virus, which health experts believe can cause abnormally small heads in newborns. And its economy, long an engine for neighbouring countries, has sharply contracted by nearly 4%. Inflation has spiked in the last year and announcements of job layoffs have become common.

The decision by Judge Mendes, who criticised Mr Silva's appointment earlier this week, was the latest volley in what has become a legal game of ping-pong. Earlier on Friday, an appeals court slapped down a separate attempt to keep Mr Silva from returning to the government while tens of thousands of his supporters rallied to back an embattled government facing a host of crises.

Mr Silva was sworn in as chief aide to Ms Rousseff on Thursday, a post that will let the charismatic politician help the president battle an impeachment effort and one that also makes it harder to investigate any possible links to a corruption scandal at the state oil company.

Supporters of Mr Silva, who was one of the world's most famous leaders as president from 2003 to 2010, gathered in rallies across Brazil, particularly in the industrial south, where the former factory worker has his base. Many wore red T-shirts and caps and frequently chanted, "Lula, the minister of hope".

The Datafolha polling agency estimated 95,000 people took part in the rally, while police estimates put turnout at 80,000.

When Mr Silva appeared on top of a large sound truck to address the crowd he was greeted with loud cheers and shouts of "Lula, Lula".

"Next week, if there is no impediment, I will start to proudly serve President Dilma and the Brazilian people," he said.

"I am going back to help President Dilma do what must be done - re-establish peace and hope. There is no room for hate in this country." He wound up his 20-minute speech staring at the crowd and shouting: "There will be no coup."

While Ms Rousseff's opponents accuse her of trying to help Mr Silva avoid legal woes, her supporters have a different take. They say 70-year-old Mr Silva, known for his ability to build consensus, could save her job and help bring the economy back from the abyss.

Ms Rousseff, with approval ratings in the single digits, is fighting attempts to oust her over allegations of fiscal mismanagement unrelated to the Petrobras case. The move towards impeachment advanced this week as the lower house established a special commission on the matter.

Ms Rousseff and Mr Silva have repeatedly denied any wrongdoing.

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