Brazil has been rocked by allegations that a prominent judge repeatedly collaborated with prosecutors during high-profile corruption investigations – including the controversial case that imprisoned former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
According to the Intercept, Sérgio Moro gave prosecutors strategic advice, criticism and tips during the sprawling corruption investigation known as Operation Car Wash that jailed hundreds of executives, politicians and middlemen.
Prosecutors also allegedly discussed strategies to block a newspaper’s attempts to interview Lula during last year’s election campaign, according to the Intercept, which published cellphone chats it said it had received from an anonymous source.
Opinion polls had indicated that Lula was likely to win the 2018 presidential poll until he was imprisoned and forced out of the race. His last-minute replacement, Fernando Haddad was beaten by the far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro – who then appointed Moro as justice minister.
Lula has been imprisoned since April 2018. He was handed a nine-year prison sentence in 2017 by Moro, who ruled that he received bribes from a construction company in the shape of a seaside apartment renovated for him.
On Sunday, the Intercept published excerpts from what it described as an “enormous trove” of group chats on the encrypted phone app Telegram, along with audio, video and other documentation.
Excerpts of conversations between prosecutors on the Telegram cellphone app appear to show Deltan Dallagnol, the lead prosecutor in the Car Wash investigation, expressing doubts over the strength of the case against Lula in September 2016, four days before filing the indictment.
“It’s like stopping the other team from playing. Its like they decided to play the ball alone,” said Carlos Melo, a professor of political science at the São Paulo business school Insper. “A basic principle of law is that those who accuse do not judge.”
Other messages appeared to show that during the election campaign, prosecutors schemed against a decision by a supreme court judge to allow Brazil’s Folha de S Paulo newspaper to interview Lula in jail because it could help his Workers’ party’s electoral chances.
“The judge’s relationship with prosecutors is scandalous,” said the Intercept Brasil’s executive editor, Leandro Demori. “This is illegal under Brazilian law.”
Lula had led in the polls for Brazil’s 2018 presidential election before his imprisonment on corruption charges. Photograph: Nelson Almeida/AFP/Getty Images
In a statement on Sunday night, Moro said the disclosures “did not show any abnormality” and that they “ignored the giant corruption scheme revealed by Operation Car Wash”.
The minister also complained about the “criminal invasion” of prosecutors’ phones.
Demori declined to discuss how the site had obtained the material, other than to say that it came from an anonymous source. He said the archive was bigger than that revealed by the NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden to the Rio-based journalist Glenn Greenwald – who later set up the Intercept and co-wrote Sunday’s articles.
Bolsonaro has yet to comment but his son Carlos shared a tweet noting that Greenwald’s husband is congressman David Miranda from the leftist Socialism and Freedom party.
Prosecutors said in a statement they had been subject to a “criminal act” by a hacker which had compromised their safety with “the objective of impeding the continuity of the operation”. “Many conversations, without due context, can give way to misinterpretations,” they said.
Brazilian leftists – who have long argued that Lula was unjustly convicted – said the revelations proved they were right. “It is harder and harder to deny the judicial persecution of Lula,” said Jean Paul Prates, a Workers’ party senator in a statement.
In February this year, Lula was handed a separate, 12-year sentence for corruption and money laundering over a country property that prosecutors argued was also renovated for him by companies involved in the same graft scheme. He denies the charges and is appealing but also faces several other corruption cases.
Geoffrey Robertson, the lawyer handling Lula’s appeal to the United Nations human rights committee said the disclosures showed Moro was biased. “Lula should now be released from prison and Moro and certain police officers prosecuted for preventing justice,” he said in a statement.