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Brazil judge in charge of Petrobras graft probe dies in plane crash

Teori Zavascki was about to make a decision on crucial confessions affecting scores of politicians

Brazilian Supreme Court Justice Teori Zavascki, 68, who was heading the massive Petrobras graft case – known as  Lava Jato, or Car Wash – died on Thursday after his plane crashed into the sea near Rio de Janeiro. His son, Francisco Prehn Zavascki, announced the death on Facebook, just minutes after confirming that his father had been inside the aircraft.

Brazil Supreme Court Justice Teori Zavascki.
Brazil Supreme Court Justice Teori Zavascki. REUTERS

The Brazilian Air Force has added that the plane belonged to the Emiliano, a luxury hotel where Zavascki had been enjoying some vacation time.

Zavascki was the justice in charge of a far-reaching, two-year-long investigation into hundreds of cases of diversion of funds and kickbacks among the country’s political class.

Individuals under investigation included politicians with aforamento privileges, meaning they can only be tried by the Supreme Court, and not in the lower courts like ordinary citizens.

Zavascki’s death could delay the Petrobras case for months

That is why all political eyes were closely following the steps of a justice who also had the power to decide on the legal validity of dozens of recent confessions from executives at Odebrecht, a construction and engineering firm involved in the Petrobras scandal. These individuals have provided detailed information about the way they would bribe politicians in return for favors.

Zavascki was expected to reach a decision in February on whether he accepted confessions that name hundreds of politicians, including the inner circles of the current Michel Temer administration and that of his predecessor, Dilma Rousseff, who was removed from the presidency last year in an impeachment process.

A widower since 2013, Zavascki leaves three children behind. One of them, Francisco, had alerted in May 2016 via Facebook that his family was receiving threats because of his father’s professional activities.

“It is obvious that there are movements of a very varied nature to halt the Petrobras case,” he wrote at the time.

What happens now?

Zavascki’s death could delay the Petrobras case for months. Article 38 of the Supreme Court’s regulations states that the caseload should fall to a replacement appointed by the Brazilian president and confirmed by the Senate. Last time there was a replacement at the Supreme Court due to a retirement, the process took 11 months.

But there is a chance that the court will use a loophole that says that the head of the Supreme Court, currently Cármen Lúcia, may unilaterally decide who will investigate the Petrobras case next.

English version by Susana Urra.

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