RIO DE JANEIRO — Brazil was still mourning the victims of one of its most agonizing sports tragedies, the crash of a plane carrying the Chapecoense soccer team. But the country’s scandal-plagued Congress had its own priorities: gutting what was supposed to be a pioneering anticorruption bill.
Shortly after President Michel Temer declared three days of official mourning for the victims of the crash, Brazilian legislators held a marathon session that went into early Wednesday. The result: legislation that could significantly erode the authority of prosecutors and judges who are investigating politicians in corruption cases.
“It was disrespectful to have voted on this on a day of mourning,” said Andrew Moreira do Nascimento, 28, the co-owner of a restaurant in São Paulo. “The focus was completely off them because of Chapecoense, and they took advantage. We’re represented by people whose own interests are their main concern.”
Many members of Brazil’s lower house are facing graft cases of their own. By watering down the anticorruption bill, they not only stirred the anger of their constituents but also set up a clash with the judiciary, heightening tensions among branches of the federal government.
“This move is an attack on Brazilian democracy,” said Roberto Veloso, the president of Brazil’s Association of Federal Judges. “They had to do it at night, as Brazilians were sleeping after a day of mourning. By weakening the judiciary, legislators are strengthening those who profit from corruption in this country.”
The vote reflects how Brazil’s political class is growing increasingly fearful as huge graft inquiries advance, including the investigation into a sweeping bribery scheme at the national oil company, Petrobras. Just last week, legislators tried to rewrite the same bill to grant amnesty to themselves and others ensnared in corruption cases involving political campaigns, provoking a widespread outcry.
Though the lower house had to abandon that amnesty measure, legislators reconfigured the bill to introduce penalties against prosecutors and judges for “crimes of responsibility,” such as disrespecting lawyers for defendants in a courtroom. While the legislation still needs Senate approval, judges warn that it would erode the independence of the judiciary, potentially opening the way for an institutional crisis.
Legislators also rewrote the bill to reject measures aimed at allowing prosecutors to reach more plea deals and enhance the power of the judicial authorities to seize assets of civil servants in graft cases. They also altered the bill to maintain statutes of limitations allowing many corrupt politicians to avoid jail time.
After voting ended around 4 a.m., Rodrigo Maia, the speaker of the lower house and an ally of Mr. Temer, called the vote “the democratic result of the legislature.”
Brazil’s Senate had already faced protesters’ burning cars and smashing windows when they approved a cap on federal spending on Tuesday. The austerity measure was championed by Mr. Temer, whose allies oustedPresident Dilma Rousseff this year.
Mr. Temer is facing one of the most difficult periods of his fledgling government. He became embroiled in a corruption scandal in recent days after a former minister in his cabinet accused him of exerting pressure to assist a top ally in a property deal.
The ally, Geddel Vieira Lima, resigned from his cabinet-level post as government secretary. But since then, the political opposition has begun maneuvering to start impeachment proceedings against Mr. Temer. Hélio Bicudo, a legal scholar and an author of the request to impeach Ms. Rousseff, has said that Mr. Temer should be impeached as well.
As the political drama intensifies once again, many Brazilians wondered aloud how their elected representatives could prioritize such tone-deaf legislation.
But there seemed to be broad consensus in the lower house of Congress regarding the bill, with legislators approving its rewriting by wide margins. Josías de Souza, a prominent political columnist, described the vote as an act of “vengeance” against the judiciary.
“At a time when there’s a hunger for cleaning up the country, the Brazilian legislature labored until dawn to show what they’re made of,” he said.