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Brazil’s ex-president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva faces arrest at any moment after a Supreme Court judge stripped him of his new ministerial role until at least the end of this month.
Justice Gilmar Mendes suspended Mr Lula da Silva’s appointment as chief of staff late on Friday in a move that is set to further inflame tension between Brazil’s ruling Workers’ Party (PT) and the judiciary.
Brazil’s highest court said in the ruling “the goal of [Mr Lula da Silva’s nomination] is clear: preventing a judge from a lower court from carrying out a preventive arrest warrant”, calling his appointment a “type of laissez-passer issued by the president”.
Opposition politicians say Ms Rousseff only appointed her predecessor and mentor as minister to give him immunity from Sérgio Moro, a federal judge who is leading investigations into a vast corruption scheme at state oil company Petrobras.
Ms Rousseff and Mr Lula da Silva deny any wrongdoing.
Mr Mendes’s decision overrides injunctions filed against Mr Lula da Silva’s appointment this week that were overturned shortly after being issued following government appeals.
While the government can still appeal Mr Mendes’s ruling, a decision will only be made when the full court next convenes, which will be on March 30.
In the meantime, Mr Moro, who has been hailed as a hero for pursuing the country’s rich and powerful over the corruption scandal, will have jurisdiction over charges filed against Mr Lula da Silva.
State prosecutors requested the ex-president’s arrest last week after filing money laundering charges against him in connection with a penthouse apartment at the centre of the Petrobras bribery and kickback scheme.
Prosecutors allege the apartment was built for the ex-president by the construction group OAS, which is suspected of using apartments in the building as bribes.
Mr Lula da Silva has denied any wrongdoing and OAS has declined to comment.
However, shortly after the arrest request was deferred to Mr Moro, Ms Rousseff announced that Mr Lula da Silva was her new chief of staff, a role that would protect him from arrest and afford him immunity everywhere but the Supreme Court.
The appointment sparked mass protests across the country, especially after Mr Moro released recordings of intercepted conversations between Mr Lula da Silva and Ms Rousseff that were said to corroborate the opposition’s claims of an ulterior motive.
Over the weekend, hundreds of thousands of government supporters also took to the streets in defence of the PT’s de facto leader, calling moves by the judiciary a coup.
Tension flared after local media reported that the judge who first filed an injunction against Mr Lula da Silva’s ministerial appointment on Thursday had posted comments on Facebook in favour of last week's anti-government protests.
“We will not accept the end of democracy or any coup in this country,” Mr Lula da Silva shouted to adoring supporters dressed in the party’s colours at a rally on São Paulo’s Paulista Avenue on Friday night.
Analysts had predicted the Supreme Court would act more favourably towards the ex-president than lower courts given that many of the justices at the higher court were nominated by the PT.
However, in one of Mr Lula da Silva’s phone calls intercepted by police he is heard calling the Supreme Court “cowardly” — a comment that has caused a backlash among the justices.
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