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Politician Goes to Jail in Brazil. Really.

The governor of the Federal District, Jose Roberto Arruda, was jailed yesterday after the Supreme Court of Justice, Brazil’s second highest court, voted 12-2 that the proof of corruption against him was sufficient to do so.

If that does not shock you, you know little about corruption in Brazil. Despite plenty of previous opportunities scandals, this was the first time any governor has gone to jail for corruption, ever. 

In general, politicians are rarely imprisoned for crimes pretty much everyone assumes they have committed. They occasionally lose their jobs, but in many cases run for office again and are elected. They virtually never have to return the money they stole.

“The imprisonment of the Federal District governor is a unprecedented occurrence and a symbolic moment for Brazil when it comes to the impunity of the political elite,” political scientist Marcelo Simas told the newspaper O Globo. Many other commentators echoed his sentiment, though many also noted that Arruda was unlikely to stay in his (bar-free) cell very long and that he was unlikely to be convicted.

It looks like he will at least stay in jail through Carnaval, which ends next Tuesday, since justice Marco Aurelio Mello of the Supreme Federal Court denied a request for habeas corpus today.

The scandal centers around bribes paid to the government of the Federal District, which is essentially Brasilia, by private companies seeking favors from officials.  The money was then paid out to various members of government. Many of the payments were caught on tape and the officials stuffing cash into their bags and pockets and, in one case, their socks, have been widely mocked by the public.

At the same time many Brazilians are celebrating what appears to be a step toward accountability, President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva struck a different tone yesterday. According to advisors quoted in O Globo, he regretted that the scandal had “reached this point” and said it was not good for the country or for Brazilian politics. The supposition is that since Lula himself went through a major corruption scandal in 2005, he is playing the Golden Rule card.

Today, he recanted a bit, saying he hoped the case served as an example for other politicians.

Meanwhile, Arruda will also suffer a fate far more common among politicians: he will be mocked by several “blocos,” or street bands, during Carnaval in Rio.