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Brazil arrests top lawmaker behind Rousseff impeachment

Former Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff/ AFP PHOTO / ANDRESSA ANHOLETE

Former Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff/ AFP PHOTO / ANDRESSA ANHOLETE

Brazilian police on Wednesday arrested Eduardo Cunha, the driving force behind former president Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment, in a new escalation of a corruption probe shaking Latin America’s biggest country.

“We can confirm that (Cunha) was detained in Brasilia,” a police spokesman told AFP. Cunha was later flown under close guard to Curitba, where the probe into a sprawling embezzlement and bribery ring at flagship state oil company Petrobras is based.

Cunha, nicknamed Brazil’s Frank Underwood after the scheming main character in the dark US political series “House of Cards,” is accused of taking millions in Petrobras-related bribes, laundering money and hiding funds in secret Swiss bank accounts.

Cunha, 58, denies all charges.

Top anti-corruption judge Sergio Moro ordered his detention, citing risks to “public order, as well as a concrete possibility of flight given his access to hidden resources abroad, as well as double nationality,” said the justice department.

Cunha, from the growing conservative evangelical movement, was the consummate wheeler-dealer of Brazilian politics and the architect of Rousseff’s removal from office this August.

As speaker of the lower house he initiated the impeachment process on charges that Rousseff broke government budget laws.

But Cunha’s triumph was short-lived as corruption allegations caught up with him. In September he was stripped of his congressional seat, losing his parliamentary legal privileges.

He is accused of taking some $40 million in bribes, including a $5 million bribe from a company winning Petrobras contracts. In his detention order, authorities blocked 220.7 million reais ($69.5 million) in assets.

– Lula next? –
Cunha’s downfall signals that the Petrobras corruption probe headed by Moro is far from over.

Dozens of politicians — from Rousseff’s Workers’ Party but also numerous figures on the right — and executives have already been charged or convicted in the embezzlement and bribery scheme.

Rousseff’s presidential predecessor and leftist icon Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva faces three corruption-related court cases and speculation is rife that he could also be placed in pre-trial detention.

“Now it will be Lula’s turn. He’s next,” said Alberto Almeida from the Analysis Institute in Sao Paulo.

There is also speculation that under pressure from prosecutors Cunha could turn on old allies and provide testimony fueling a new wave of corruption cases.

“The political consequences will depend on how long he remains in detention,” Alemida said. “He has a lot of information on Dilma’s government, on the house of deputies, different parties.”

The man who replaced Rousseff, Michel Temer, is a former Cunha ally from the center-right PMDB party. He has been accused of seeking to weaken the Petrobras probe, but insists that the Petrobras inquiry, dubbed Operation Car Wash, should continue even if several of his ministerial choices have been targeted in probes.

Even behind bars, Cunha is likely to continue fascinating — and scaring — the political elite.

A master at maintaining influence even as his legal troubles piled up, Cunha used multiple stalling tactics to impede his eventual ouster from Congress. The process dragged on for almost a year, the longest in Brazilian history.

Prosecutors cited that ability to delay and obstruct as one of the reasons for ordering his detention.

In this article:
Dilma RousseffSergio Moro

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