[Column] Brazil, Egypt and Korea

Posted on : 2024-04-09 17:09 KST Modified on : 2024-04-09 17:09 KST
The rise of Cho Kuk’s Rebuilding Korea Party parallels situations elsewhere in the world where abuse of investigations by prosecutors ultimately led to upheaval
Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva embraces his wife, Rosangela Lula da Silva, after winning the Brazilian presidential election in November 2022. (AP/Yonhap)
Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva embraces his wife, Rosangela Lula da Silva, after winning the Brazilian presidential election in November 2022. (AP/Yonhap)

By Jung E-gil, senior international affairs writer

On Jan. 14, 2015, Brazilian Federal Police agent Newton Ishii arrested Nestor Cerveró, a former official with the state-owned oil company Petrobras, upon the latter’s arrival at Galeão International Airport in Rio de Janeiro.

The arrest marked the start of Operation Car Wash, an event that would usher in unprecedented political upheavals in Brazil with the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff, the imprisonment of former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the rise and fall of extreme right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro, and a comeback and return to power for Lula.

The emergence and unexpectedly strong performance of the Rebuilding Korea Party in the election race is symbolic of churning public sentiments calling for a judgment on the “republic of prosecutors.” It’s a situation with parallels in Egypt and Brazil, where the political abuse of investigations by prosecutors and court rulings — ostensibly in the name of “fairness” and the “rule of law” — led ultimately to political tragedies and reversals.

“Operation Car Wash” got its name from an investigation into illicit currency conversion using laundries and gas stations as fronts. From there, it developed into an investigation of a massive corruption scandal involving Petrobras and other state-owned companies, which had amassed secret funds amounting to over US$5 million, using them to bribe politicians and government officials.

Operation Car Wash and its campaign to purge the government of corrupt high-level politicians was enabled by Lula and his progressive administration’s expansion of the budget and authority of police and public prosecutors. Rousseff even denied requests from incumbent politicians to block Operation Car Wash.

When large public companies in Brazil commission contracts for projects, they intentionally overstate the project’s costs. They then take the margins as rebates from the firms who win the contract and distribute the money among politicians and senior officials. It’s a chronic problem in Brazilian politics. 

The complicated nature of Brazil’s federal and state legislatures causes a plethora of political factions to mushroom. In this political structure, the various factions need significant funds to form a coalition government. Lula’s Workers’ Party is no exception. The problem was that, as time went on, the operation grew more selective and began unfavorably targeting the ruling liberal party. Politicians within the opposition conservative party — where corruption is even more rampant — received the benefit of a blind eye.

Politically motivated prosecutors and judges joined forces with senior conservative politicians to use Operation Car Wash to hunt Rousseff and the ruling liberal party as well as Lula, the former progressive president. Originally, the operation was meant to target Vice President Michel Temer. When Rousseff didn’t block the investigations headed his way, Temer cooperated and survived politically. In August 2016, he spearheaded the impeachment of Rousseff and became president.

On Jan. 19, 2017, Brazilian Supreme Court judge Teori Zavascki died in a suspicious plane crash. Zavascki was one of the few justices who were relatively objective in the cases brought by Operation Car Wash. After Zavascki’s death, Operation Car Wash started becoming overtly distorted. In July of that year, Lula received a prison sentence of nine years and six months. In the aftermath, far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro was elected president in 2018. Sergio Moro, the federal judge who sentenced Lula, was appointed by Bolsonaro as the new minister of justice and public security in July 2019.

In August of that year, leaked phone conversations between Moro and Deltan Dallagnol, the lead prosecutor during Operation Car Wash, revealed that prosecutors plotted to arrange and present evidence that would indict the political opposition. Investigative reporters uncovered evidence that Moro advised prosecutors in investigations that would prevent the Workers’ Party candidate from winning the next election. Reports indicated that Moro provided investigative clues and leaked internal information. Public opinion of Bolsonaro tanked, and the reputation of Operation Car Wash was ruined.

In March 2019, a Brazilian judge lambasted Operation Car Wash’s investigators as “gangsters and scum,” declaring that their “methods dishonor institutions.” Released from prison, Lula ran for president in 2022 and won. A Supreme Court judge ruled that Lula’s arrest was a “setup” and “one of the gravest errors in the country’s judicial history.” Ishii, Moro and Dallagnol — the main faces of the operation — were arrested on corruption charges or fled abroad.

Elsewhere in the world, prosecutors and the courts, two institutions that are supposed to uphold the rule of law, are still left in a tragic state.

On June 14, 2012, the Egyptian Supreme Constitutional Court ruled that the proportional representation system of the parliamentary elections that followed the ouster of Muhammad Hosni Mubarak, an autocrat who was driven out of office by a civic uprising, were unconstitutional, ordering the dissolution of the national parliament. This was two days before Mohamed Morsi of the Freedom and Justice Party, which had a parliamentary majority, became Egypt’s first president to be elected by popular vote.

Afterward, the court blocked all of Morsi’s efforts to reassemble parliament, form a new constitution, and implement parliamentary elections. Prosecutors then led efforts to acquittal of violent rioters who murdered the activists who demanded Mubarak’s resignation. They also resisted Morsi’s attempt to dismiss the prosecutor general. The unprecedented campaign by judges and prosecutors to topple the government lasted for a year. It ended in a coup that seated Defense Minister Abdel Fattah El-Sisi at the head of an authoritarian regime. Morsi was arrested and died in prison while facing trial.

After Wednesday’s general election, what will result from the day of reckoning for South Korea’s prosecutorial regime?

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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