Demonstrators protest in front of the justice ministry in Brasilia, Brazil, June 10 2019. Picture: EVARISTO SA / AFP
Demonstrators protest in front of the justice ministry in Brasilia, Brazil, June 10 2019. Picture: EVARISTO SA / AFP

Rio de Janeiro — Leaked documents showing Brazilian anticorruption investigators conspired to keep leftist icon Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva out of the 2018 presidential race ignited a firestorm on social media Monday, but analysts downplayed the potential fall-out.

The Intercept website co-founded by Glenn Greenwald published a series of explosive articles on Sunday based on material provided by an anonymous source that it said show “serious wrongdoing, unethical behaviour, and systematic deceit” in the sprawling Car Wash” graft investigation that has claimed scores of political and business scalps since it began in 2014.

Claims that justice minister Sergio Moro — the anticorruption judge who handed Lula his first conviction in 2017 which effectively ended his election hopes and decades of centre-left rule in Brazil — collaborated with prosecutors to convict and jail the popular former politician were a “setback” for the probe, Christopher Garman of Eurasia Group said.

But strong public support for the anticorruption  drive meant they were unlikely to result in overturning convictions or Moro’s resignation.

“In the public imagination it is not at all shocking or something that undermines the legitimacy of the whole effort,” Garman said. While the revelations would fuel the “free Lula” movement and “give fodder” for legal challenges to ongoing investigations, the most Lula could hope for was a fast-tracking of his release into home detention, he said.

“They do not change, in substance, the reason for the convictions even though they reveal inappropriate comments (by investigators),” said former president Fernando Cardoso in remarks published by the UOL website.

There could be “some fallout, probably, but no big deal”, David Fleischer, a political science professor at the University of Brasilia, said.

Debate over the leak of Telegram messages erupted on Twitter,  highlighting the country’s deep political divisions under President Jair Bolsonaro, who took office in January.

“We shouldn’t discard the real possibility the conversations were forged, creating #fakenews,” tweeted Marcelo Bretas, a judge in the Car Wash probe in Rio de Janeiro.

Greenwald fired back: “Implying that the material is ‘fake’ is a dirty tactic, especially for a judge. Your friends in court and LJ (Lava Jato) who behaved in an unethical way could only reveal the content. But they do not even claim that the documents are ‘fake’ because they know they are real. You know that too.”

Bolsonaro, normally very outspoken on Twitter, has been unusually quiet.

Among the claims, The Intercept said Car Wash prosecutors had expressed “serious doubts whether there was sufficient evidence to establish Lula’s guilt.”

The leaked material also shows “prosecutors spoke openly of their desire to prevent the PT (Workers Party) from winning the (2018) election and took steps to carry out that agenda,” The Intercept said.

And Moro repeatedly “overstepped the ethical lines that define the role of a judge” by offering prosecutors advice and tips for “new avenues of investigation”, the site said.

The messages also show conversations among prosecutors over how to block a Brazilian newspaper from interviewing Lula during the election campaign for fear it would help the PT win.

“The material we have is huge,” The Intercept executive editor Leandro Demori said. “We’ve only looked so far at a very small part of it.”

In response to the reports, Moro defended his actions and cast doubt on the authenticity of the messages from prosecutors’ cell phones.

“They are things that happened, if they happened, years ago,” Moro was quoted by news website Antagonista as saying. “I don’t keep these, I have no record of this.”

Lula has denied all the corruption charges against him. He has argued that they were politically motivated to prevent him from competing in the elections.

Lula is serving a reduced jail term of eight years and 10 months after being convicted of accepting a seaside apartment as a bribe for helping the OAS construction company get lucrative deals with Petrobras.

While behind bars, Lula’s Workers Party registered him as their presidential candidate in August 2018 — two months before the election he was widely expected to win. An electoral court barred him two weeks later and Bolsonaro went on to win the ballot.