South America has been a special part of my life for four decades. I have lived many years in Brasil and Peru. I am married to an incredible lady from Argentina. I want to share South America with you.
Brazilian lawyers Cristiano and Valeska Zanin Martins discovered just how polarised the political climate in their country had become when they received a surprise midnight call from someone at their child’s school recently.
A group of conservative mothers, angry over the couple’s defence of former leftist president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva against corruption allegations, were planning to hold protests against them at their child’s school assembly the next day, the caller warned.
“It has gotten surreal,” said Ms Martins. “To expose our children to this?”
In what has already been a tumultuous year marked by the impeachment of former President Dilma Rousseff, Brazilians are bracing themselves for what promises to be Latin America’s trial of the century — the start of corruption hearings against her predecessor and mentor, the once wildly popular Mr Lula da Silva.
A guilty verdict against the leader of the Workers’ Party, or PT, could unleash political protests at a time when the new government of Ms Rousseff’s former vice-president, Michel Temer, is trying to restore confidence by passing sensitive fiscal reformsthrough congress.
“Imagine the mere idea that Lula could go to prison? He’s an ex-president, he was president twice. That this could cause problems, I have no doubt,” Mr Temer said on Brazilian television show, Roda Viva.
The trial, in which witnesses are set to begin giving testimony this week, will mark the culmination of over two years of investigations into Brazil’s biggest corruption scheme, a bribery scandal at oil company Petrobras.
Imagine the mere idea that Lula could go to prison? He’s an ex-president, he was president twice. That this could cause problems, I have no doubt
It will call into question the legacy of the man whose supporters consider a hero for reducing poverty during his eight years in power between 2003 and 2010, but whose detractors revile as a populist who was loose with public money and helped usher in Brazil’s worst recession in a century.
Mr Lula da Silva has survived corruption scandals before. The former inner circle of his leftist Workers’ Party, or PT, was jailed in 2013 for a vote-buying scheme.
This time, however, prosecutors believe they have enough proof to convict him. They accuse him of accepting favours from construction companies in return for contracts at Petrobras. These include a beachside apartment and a rural getaway he is alleged to have owned in all but name.
They also allege he helped Brazil’s largest construction company Odebrecht win contracts in Angola with funding from Brazil’s state-run development bank, BNDES.
Defending Mr Lula da Silva is the family law firm led by Ms Martins’ father and old Lula friend, Roberto Teixeira.
From their office in a leafy residential area of São Paulo, the Martins argue that Mr Lula da Silva is the victim of “lawfare” — systematic legal harassment.
“From a legal point of view, what we see is that prosecutors have opened a wide front of investigations and penal actions that are based on suspicions and accusations that are fragile and that I would say are frivolous,” said Mr Martins.
Mr Lula da Silva’s name was not on the title of either the apartment or the rural getaway, neither did the former president have influence at BNDES, he said.
Mr Martins also argued that Sérgio Moro, the tough anti-corruption judge presiding over the Petrobras case, and the prosecutors had violated Mr Lula da Silva’s right to privacy and the presumption of innocence in their pursuit of the case.
Judge Moro in March released politically sensitive recordings of Mr Lula da Silva speaking privately with Ms Rousseff and others, including his lawyer, Ms Martins` father. The Supreme Court later banned the use of the recordings as evidence.
The Martins’ concerns about some of the practices being employed by investigators in the Petrobras case, such as the release of the recordings and holding people under arrest without trial, are shared by some academics.
“If this becomes standard in Brazil, the authorities will be free to persecute any citizen in this way,” said Professor Thiago Bottino of FGV Direito Rio, a law school. He said he suspected the idea of the Lula case was to remove the former president as a contender for the 2018 presidential elections.
The prosecutors counter that such arrests involve only the minority of suspects who they fear might tamper with evidence or flee.
Judge Moro also denies any political bias. “These cases have nothing to do with party politics,” he told newspaper Estado de S. Paulo in a recent interview.
The Martins are trying to turn Mr Lula da Silva’s case into an international cause célèbre, enlisting the help of human rights activist, barrister Geoffrey Robertson QC, and taking it to the United Nations Human Rights Commission.
No matter what happens, the trial is expected to be highly controversial, with the results bound to divide Brazilians, for some of whom Mr Lula da Silva is a hero and for many others a villain.
“I have been feeling bullying from the other mothers at the school, they are staying away from me, [saying] that as a defender of a ‘criminal’, I must be a criminal too,” said Ms Martins.