Brazil's Rousseff claims Senate trial is a 'coup'

Ms Rousseff at the impeachment trial yesterday. She branded accusations against her as "a pretext for a constitutional coup".
Ms Rousseff at the impeachment trial yesterday. She branded accusations against her as "a pretext for a constitutional coup". PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Suspended president facing impeachment says she is innocent; all signs point to her removal by Senate

BRASILIA • Suspended Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff told the country's Senate yesterday that her impeachment trial is a coup d'etat and that she is innocent.

Ms Rousseff - Brazil's first female president - was testifying for the first time at her trial, hours before senators were to start voting on her fate.

All indications point to her being removed from office, ending 13 years of rule by the leftist Workers' Party in Latin America's biggest country.

Branding accusations against her as "a pretext for a constitutional coup", Ms Rousseff called herself a fighter for democracy.

"I've come to look your excellencies in the eye and to say that I did not commit a crime," Ms Rousseff, 68, said in a calm, firm voice from the Senate chamber podium.

"I did not commit the crimes for which I have been accused unjustly and arbitrarily."

  • From militant to president to...

  • Ms Dilma Rousseff survived torture as a guerilla opposing Brazil's military dictatorship before rising to become president, then plunging from the heights to face impeachment.

    Born on Dec 14, 1947 to a Brazilian mother and Bulgarian businessman father, she grew up comfortably middle-class in the city of Belo Horizonte.

    She cut her political teeth as a Marxist militant opposed to Brazil's 1964-1985 dictatorship. She was jailed in 1970 and accused of involvement in murders and bank robberies. During nearly three years behind bars, she says she was tortured, including with electric shocks, before her release in 1972.

    Twice married, she has a daughter, Paula, from a three-decade relationship with her former husband, fellow militant Carlos de Araujo.

    As chairman of oil giant Petrobras from 2003 to 2010, she helmed the country's biggest corporation - a role now haunting her as the courts probe a massive embezzlement scheme at the company.

    Ms Rousseff came to power in a 2010 election as the hand-picked Workers' Party candidate to succeed hugely popular Mr Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the party's founder. Whether as his chief of staff or energy minister, Ms Rousseff, an economist, won a reputation for laser-like attention to detail.

    She once admitted escaping the presidential palace on the back of a friend's Harley-Davidson and cruising the streets of Brasilia incognito. She also tapped into a national obsession with cosmetic surgery, getting her teeth whitened, hair redone and wrinkles lifted.

    That contrasted with the visible toll of a battle against lymphatic cancer first diagnosed in 2009. At one point, she wore a wig to hide hair loss from chemotherapy. She has since made a complete recovery, doctors say.

    AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Ms Rousseff is accused of having taken illegal state loans to patch budget holes. But momentum to push her out of office is also fuelled by deep anger at Brazil's historic recession, political paralysis and a vast corruption scandal centred on state oil giant Petrobras.

Cheering supporters greeted her as Ms Rousseff arrived in the Senate. "Dilma, warrior of the Brazilian homeland!", the crowd of supporters shouted.

And inside the chamber, there was standing room only and a crackling atmosphere of tension and anticipation. Supreme Court Chief Justice Ricardo Lewandowski, who presided, warned the public and senators not to applaud or otherwise interrupt Ms Rousseff's speech.

She was to face questioning from allies and opponents after speaking.

Ms Rousseff came to the showdown accompanied by heavyweight allies, including her presidential predecessor Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, and a dozen former Cabinet members.

A small crowd of loyalists gathered from early morning outside the Senate and supporters shouted "Dilma come back!" from cars as they drove past the building's entrance.

However, there appeared to be little Ms Rousseff could say to save her presidency.

Closing arguments began after her testimony yesterday, followed by voting, possibly extending into tomorrow. Opponents say they will easily reach the needed two-thirds majority - 54 of 81 senators - to remove her from office.

In that case, Ms Rousseff's former vice-president turned political enemy, Mr Michel Temer, will be confirmed as president until elections in 2018.

Mr Temer, from the centre-right PMDB party, has already been acting as President since May, using his brief period in power to steer the government rightward.

He plans to leave today or tomorrow on his first official foreign trip, a G-20 summit in China, where officials say he will push to restore the tattered reputation of Brazil's economy.

Criticised for lacking a popular touch or appetite for backroom politicking, Ms Rousseff has barely double-digit approval ratings.

However, supporters outside the Senate said they backed Ms Rousseff's claim to be the victim of trumped up charges in a right-wing coup.

"I am fighting to defend democracy and the dignity of the people. This has been a persecution against the Workers' Party, Dilma and the Brazilian people," said retired teacher Marlene Bastos, 65, one of about 100 protesters outside the Senate.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 30, 2016, with the headline 'Brazil's Rousseff claims Senate trial is a 'coup''. Print Edition | Subscribe