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By Simone Preissler Iglesias and Andrew Rosati

Brazil’s Supreme Court found that the judge who presided over corruption cases against former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva was biased, a ruling that could unravel the landmark Carwash anti-graft probe.

A panel of justices voted 3 to 2 that former judge Sergio Moro, who spearheaded the operation, was prejudiced in convicting Lula of money laundering and corruption in 2017. The result was announced by Justice Gilmar Mendes, who presided over the panel.

Lauded by many as an anti-corruption crusader, Moro, 48, was criticized by others as a power-hungry opportunist after accepting an invitation to serve as President Jair Bolsonaro’s justice minister. A series of hacked phone messages published by the Intercept in 2019 appeared to show coordination between him and the top prosecutor during Lula’s trial. He has denied wrongdoing and later quit the administration on poor terms with the president.

Such revelations led Justice Carmen Lucia to change her vote, initially cast in 2018, to side with Mendes. “A person cannot feel they are being judged by a biased person,” she said on Wednesday.

Carwash also lost steam recently due to both Covid-19 fatigue and presidential fiat: Bolsonaro, who rode a wave of anger over official graft into office, declared the country free of corruption in October and formally disbanded the operation last month.

Lula, the probe’s biggest trophy, was released from prison in 2019 after a change in appeal laws. The former president claims he’s the “victim of the biggest judicial lie in 500 years” of Brazil’s history. Earlier this month, Supreme Court Justice Edson Fachin vacated two convictions of corruption and money laundering (and two pending cases) on technical grounds — that they were tried in the wrong jurisdiction. The decision allows Lula to run for the presidency next year.

The next day, Mendes brought forward a long-dormant inquiry into Moro’s alleged partiality. While the ramifications of Tuesday’s ruling are still uncertain, anti-graft activists and legal scholars warn it could potentially affect the dozens of other sentences Moro handed down.

“It’s contagious,” said Bruno Salles, a criminal lawyer and partner at the Cavalcanti, Sion and Salles law firm in Sao Paulo. “Others accused can now use the decision to say the same thing happened to them.”

Source: Bloomberg