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Brazil: The Legal System

By Stephen Thompson
The Brazilian justice system works slowly, so slowly in fact that many of the biggest criminals are never caught. Brazilian justice is also unjust. Brazil has one law for the rich and another for the poor. According to one lawyer I spoke to, prison is only for PPPs: pretos, pobres e as putas (blacks, poor and prostitutes). If you have money, you can escape from Justice easily in Brazil.

Brazil's legal system is also a mess. There are many different kinds of courts, the system is understaffed, and lawyers deliberately delay proceedings by appealing even when there is no chance of success. They are allowed to do this. There are many different privileges and corrupt politicians use these privileges to escape justice. For example, when they are caught receiving bribes they they can escape punishment from the Brazilian legislature by resigning. If they are being prosecuted, then the court case must be transferred to another court once they leave office or are re-elected. This is one way that corrupt politicians delay Justice.

In addition, many crimes have a limited time span, after which a person can no longer be tried. Since Brazilian justice is slow, it is often too late to prosecute by the time the authorities finally get it together. In addition, at the age of 70, sentences for most crimes are automatically reduced by 50%.

One shocking example of injustice and inefficiency of the Brazilian Justice system is the former mayor of São Paulo, Paulo Maluf, who is believed to have stolen several hundred million dollars from the government finances, mostly by overcharging on road construction projects in the city. Despite having been prosecuted over 100 times, Maluf has only been convicted once, in a relatively minor case. Last year, he was arrested and jailed for obstructing the course of justice by attempting to bribe or intimidate witnesses. Many people rejoiced and believed prematurely that the Brazilian justice system had finally begun to work. However, the Brazilian Supreme Court had a different view, and argued that Maluf should be released because the witness he had been attempting to interfere with had already given testimony. This extraordinary leniency is very common especially when powerful people are involved. Apart from having friends in high places, Maluf also has a large well-paid team of lawyers who can exploit every loophole in the Brazilian legal system. And there must be a lot of them. Maluf and his like are unbelievably brazen in their denial of the truth. Even after the Swiss financial authorities have delivered a truckload of evidence detailing his money laundering activities in their country, Maluf still steadfastly denies that he has ever had a bank account abroad. The extent of public apathy about this lack of justice is so great that Maluf's supporters used to praise him by saying "he steals but he gets things done". Some Brazilians assume that all their politicians steal, and hope that at least they spend part of the taxpayers money on public works. Even in the last election, Maluf still received 15% of the vote. With this level of apathy, it is unlikely that the much-needed reform of the legal system will happen soon.

There are just so many other things that need to be done, and the Brazilian political system works very slowly. This is very damaging for the country, because financial criminals know that the chance of them being punished is very small. Some Brazilian legal cases run for decades and are still not resolved.

In a recent interview, the head of the Brazilian Supreme Court described how in his youth, he was approached by an elderly man who had been waiting for 30 years for his case to be judged, and wondered if there was any chance of this happening before he died. Since then, he said, things have got even worse.

If there is hope, it comes from the Ministerio Publico, a government department staffed by proactive lawyers who attack corruption and cartels. These guys keep digging up unpleasant facts that the government wants to hide, for example the connection between the assassination of the Mayor of São Andre and the illegal PT extortion of bus companies.

Brazilian law can also be contradictory, as I found when I applied for my foreigners ID card (RNE). I was asked if I had been working, and warned that though it is illegal to work without an RNE, it is also illegal to be married to a Brazilian and not give financial support. "I have been doing some odd jobs I said" and the police were satisfied!

Stephen Thompson runs "O Gaucho", a snack bar serving breakfast, juices, smoothies and sandwiches. Galeria 2001, 2001 Avenida Paulista, São Paulo. For an English menu contact stephenthompson@hotmail.com

To read previous articles by Stephen click the links below:

Brazil: Saying Goodbye to a Bilingual Kid
How to get Brazilian Citizenship
Getting Work in Brazil
Acquiring and Running a Small Business in Brazil
Brazil: To Free Or Not To Free
Brazil: Trail Biking in Chapada Diamantinha
Brazil: So Near, but So Far Apart
How to Get Into University in Brazil
The Pleasure of Driving a Car in Brazil
Brazil: The Bairro of Flamengo in Río de Janeiro
Brazil: The Information Technology Law
Managing a Brazilian bank account
Brazil‘s Middle Class Ruled By Political Apathy

2/28/2006


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