Brazil court suspends lawmaker behind bid to impeach President Dilma Rousseff

Speaker of Brazil's Lower House Eduardo Cunha speaks to the press, on May 5, 2016.
Speaker of Brazil's Lower House Eduardo Cunha speaks to the press, on May 5, 2016. PHOTO: AFP

BRASILIA (AFP) - Brazil's Supreme Court on Thursday (May 5) suspended a powerful lawmaker at the centre of efforts to impeach President Dilma Rousseff, on grounds he tried to obstruct a probe into his alleged corruption.

Eduardo Cunha, the speaker of Brazil's lower house of Congress, is the architect of the impeachment drive that is expected to force Rousseff to step aside from office on Wednesday.

He said his suspension, the latest in a whirlpool of corruption scandals, was retaliation for his campaign against Rousseff.

Her supporters argued it was grounds for the impeachment drive now to be dropped, though it was not expected to spare her now that her case is in the hands of the Senate.

Despite facing criminal charges including bribery and hiding money in Swiss bank accounts, Cunha has survived months of attempts by prosecutors and a congressional ethics committee to see him brought to justice.

A master backroom political operator, he is widely seen as the key figure in getting the impeachment proceedings green-lighted by the lower house in April. The Senate will vote Wednesday on whether to open a trial and suspend Rousseff.

But the man Brazilians refer to as a real-life Frank Underwood - the corrupt US politician in the hit Netflix series "House of Cards" - appeared finally to have been brought down by the high court.

Justice Teori Zavaski slapped the suspension on Cunha Thursday morning, and the full court ratified it later in the day.

Zavaski said that Cunha had obstructed justice "to prevent the success of investigations against him." With Rousseff likely to be suspended and replaced by her vice president, Michel Temer, next week, Cunha would have moved up to first on the presidential succession list.

Zavaski said Cunha was not fit for that job.

Rousseff ruefully welcomed her enemy's fate.

"Better late than never," she said. "The only thing I regret... is that he was able to sit there stone-faced and preside over these shameful (impeachment) proceedings in the lower house." Cunha told reporters there was "no chance" he would resign.

"I will not give up anything," he said.

"I am suffering political retaliation for the impeachment process." The government's top lawyer Jose Eduardo Cardozo said the suspension "shows that Mr Cunha abused his office." He called for the impeachment process to be abandoned.

Rousseff is accused of manipulating government budget accounts with illegal loans, a charge which she describes as technical and not worthy of impeachment.

If she is suspended she will be put on half pay pending the outcome of the trial, which could take several months.

Cunha is accused of taking bribes as part of the massive corruption scheme centered on Petrobras, the huge state oil company. He rejects the charges.

He is also being investigated by the congressional ethics committee over allegedly lying to Congress about possessing secret Swiss bank accounts.

The congressional deputy next in line to replace Cunha as speaker, Waldir Maranhao Cardoso, is himself being investigated for alleged Petrobras-related crimes, including money-laundering.

Meanwhile, Temer, who has been named by cooperating witnesses as involved in the Petrobras scheme but is not being formally investigated, faced a new legal problem of his own Thursday.

After being found guilty earlier this week by an electoral court of breaking campaign finance rules, he risks being barred from seeking elected office for eight years, a spokesman for the court told AFP.

The ban however does not affect his current position - or his likely rise to become acting president next week.

A conservative member of Brazilian politics' growing Evangelical wing, Cunha belongs to the center-right PMDB party. It used to be the key partner in Rousseff's ruling coalition, but broke away and backed impeachment.

Brazil is suffering its deepest recession in decades. On Thursday, Fitch followed other ratings agencies in downgrading Brazil's credit score.

It was already classed as speculative or "junk" grade and on Thursday Fitch shifted the rating down to BB from BB+.

The downgrade "reflects the deeper-than-anticipated economic contraction, failure of the government to stabilize the outlook for public finances and the sustained legislative gridlock and elevated political uncertainty," Fitch said.