RIO DE JANEIRO — The Brazilian Supreme Court on Wednesday accepted the appeals of a dozen former political and business leaders found guilty in the nation's biggest corruption trial, paving the way for new trials and dealing a blow to those who hailed the earlier convictions as a turning point against impunity.
The case involves a scheme that came to light in 2005 in which top aides to former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva created a scheme to pay off legislators so they would support the ruling Workers Party initiatives in Congress.
The guilty verdicts for 25 defendants last year were seen as a positive sign in a country where public service has been marred by corruption and impunity for centuries. On Wednesday, the 11-member court weighed a technical wrinkle in the case and decided in a 6-5 vote that defendants have the right to a new trial for the criminal counts for which they earlier received at least four not-guilty votes.
That means 12 defendants will get new trials, including Silva's former chief of staff Jose Dirceu and the former Workers Party president Jose Genoino for conspiracy, and Joao Cunha, the ex-leader of Brazil's lower house of Congress, for money laundering.
Justice Celso de Mello cast the sixth decisive vote in favor of the appeals. He had been the harshest critic of the defendants during last year's trial, but said it was his duty to defend the law and not bend to widespread support for a quick end to the case.
"If it's true that the Supreme Court is a place for the protection and defense of fundamental freedoms ... then it can't expose itself to external pressures as a result of popular outcry and pressure from crowds," Mello said.
The move will not totally clear most of the defendants because they were convicted on at least one other charge by too wide of a margin to allow for an appeal.
But it could allow them to win a less harsh kind of imprisonment and be eligible for parole earlier.
Some, like Dirceu may avoid serving their sentences full-time in prison by being placed in a "semi-open" regime that allows them to do supervised work during the day and sleep in prison at night.
Nobody has yet been jailed in connection to the case, which has angered Brazilians. The court has not yet decided when the appeals will be heard.
The Estado de S. Paulo newspaper lamented in a Wednesday editorial that the top court would miss the opportunity to reject the appeals and signal that "a tradition of impunity has been broken" and "the powerful will no longer be above the law and beyond its reach."
The newspaper said impunity is partly the fault of judges in Brazil's notoriously slow and complex legal system, with the dominant idea being that "the more time-consuming a decision, the more appeals there are" the better the ruling.
Joaquim Falcao, a law professor and legal expert at Rio de Janeiro's Getulio Vargas Foundation, Brazil's top think tank, said the justices were faced with a tough and legitimate technical question.
He said the top court's internal legal system allows appeals on counts that receive at least four not-guilty votes, but the constitution doesn't mention such appeals, leading to the sharp divide between the justices.
Falcao said he understands that frustrated Brazilians just want the case to end, but he defended the court's responsibility to work through the process.
"If the Supreme Court eventually absolves the defendants, then you could have a situation in which the democratic institutions are gravely discredited," he said. "There may be some disillusionment with this ruling, but I don't think it's institutionally grave for democracy. I think it's more of a delayed opportunity for justice."
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Associated Press writer Marco Sibaja in Brasilia contributed to this report.