By MAURICIO SAVARESE and SARAH DiLORENZO
SAO PAULO (AP) — A congressional committee rejected a recommendation to try Brazil’s president for corruption, handing him a symbolic victory Thursday a day after a former president was convicted of graft.
The corruption cases against two major Brazilian figures underscored the extent of political turmoil in Latin America’s largest country, where a spreading corruption investigation has uncovered a scheme to exchange bribes and kickbacks for political favors and public contracts.
That probe has led to an accusation that President Michel Temer accepted bribes from a meatpacking executive in exchange for helping the company obtain favorable government decisions. Temer has denied wrongdoing.
Earlier this week, a lawmaker appointed to study Temer’s case recommended that the charge be accepted, a setback for Temer. But on Thursday, a Chamber of Deputies committee rejected that recommendation, swinging the pendulum back in Temer’s favor.
Both moves are largely symbolic. The decision to suspend Temer and put him on trial rests with the full lower house. If two-thirds of the 513 deputies should vote against Temer, lower house Speaker Rodrigo Maia would take over presidential duties while Brazil’s Supreme Court tried the president.
After the contentious committee vote, which occasionally descended into shouting matches, some lawmakers cried “Temer out!” and “Purchased vote!” Others responded with “Long live Temer!”
The president issued a statement calling the vote “a win for democracy and the law.” Temer, who has single-digit popularity in the polls, also said his allies are part of a “solid majority” that has “civic courage” to defend him.
Some lawmakers complained that the extensive substitution of committee members in recent days made the committee vote a farce. Party leaders have the right to replace their members on committees as they see fit, and Brazilian media reported that parties allied with Temer made several such substitutions — in an apparent bid to guarantee the vote went the president’s way.
The mammoth “Operation Car Wash” investigation has led to political tensions in Brazil between those who consider the prosecutors and judges pursuing corruption to be heroes and those who think some of the prosecutions are politically motivated.
A day after being convicted of corruption, former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva stoked those flames Thursday with a defiant public defense accusing his political opponents of trying to prevent him from becoming president again.
Federal judge Sergio Moro, hailed by many Brazilians as a hero and by others as a zealot, found Silva guilty Wednesday and sentenced him to nearly 10 years in prison, though the charismatic leader remains free while an appeal is heard.
The man popularly known as simply “Lula” told supporters the court had no proof and the conviction was politically motivated. As he grew increasingly animated while speaking, beads of sweat collected on his forehead.
To cheers, he said he wants to run for re-election next year.
“If anyone thinks that with this sentence they will pull me out of the game, they should know that I am in the game,” Silva said. “The only people who can declare my end are the Brazilian people.”
At various points the crowd broke into cheers of “Lula for president!” A supporter raised a poster behind him that read, “Election without Lula is a fraud.”
His case now goes before a group of magistrates, and one of those judges promised Thursday that action will be taken before the October 2018 elections. If they uphold the conviction, Brazilian law says Silva would be barred from seeking office.
“By August next year, this case will be decided,” said Judge Carlos Eduardo Thompson, chairman of the court that will hear the appeal. “Either the court will confirm this decision and he will be unelectable or it will amend the decision and he will be able to run.”
Three judges are expected to be part of that trial: Joao Pedro Gebran Neto, who has mostly upheld or increased sentences given by Moro, plus Victor Laus and Leandro Paulsen, both seen as more unpredictable.
Silva was accused of receiving a beachfront apartment and repairs to the property as kickbacks from construction company OAS. He never owned the apartment, but prosecutors argued it was intended for him.
Silva is the highest-profile figure to be convicted in the corruption investigation so far, and the first Brazilian ex-president to be found guilty in a criminal proceeding at least since the restoration of democracy in the 1980s.
He was Brazil’s first working-class president and remains beloved in many quarters, though the corruption probe has dented his reputation. He faces charges in four other cases but has been considered a front-runner for next year’s election.
He left office at the end of 2010 with sky-high popularity after riding an economic boom to fund social programs that pulled millions out of poverty and expanding the international role of Latin America’s biggest nation.
Prosecutors said they would appeal seeking to increase the 9½-year sentence.
Associated Press writer Mauricio Savarese reported this story from Rio de Janeiro and AP writer Sarah DiLorenzo reported in Sao Paulo. AP writer Stan Lehman in Sao Paulo contributed to this report.