BRASILIA (Reuters) - Brazil's Supreme Court is expected to rule on Thursday whether terms of plea bargains struck in the nation's sweeping corruption probes can be revised by the full court, a move critics worry could sharply weaken the most potent weapon prosecutors wield in rooting out graft.
The court on Wednesday began debating that topic, and two of the 11 justices voted that the top court should have the right to revise the terms of plea bargains, but only after the defendants in cases in which their testimony was used have been sentenced.
As the law now stands, it is up to federal prosecutors to hammer out the details of plea bargains, such as whether a person who turns state witness must serve jail time or not, and if that agreement must be approved by a single judge.
Opening the possibility that defence lawyers could ask the badly over-burdened Supreme Court to decide on the terms of plea bargains would likely both severely slow down the speed at which such agreements are made and increase the chances that tougher terms would be forced upon potential whistleblowers, two federal prosecutors with knowledge of the matter told Reuters.
"This is a signal to those who may wish to strike an accord with prosecutors and turn over substantial amounts of proof of corruption that they may not really benefit from doing so," one of the prosecutors said. "Without question, this will lessen the numbers of those who will come forward to talk."
Brazil only began allowing plea-bargain agreements in 2013. They have been the key means for federal prosecutors to unravel what has become one of the world’s largest corruption schemes, in which large firms paid billions of dollars in bribes to politicians and executives of state-run companies in return for winning lucrative contracts.
More than 90 high-ranking politicians and top businessmen have been convicted so far in the "Operation Car Wash" investigation. The probe has branched out in the last three years, with President Michel Temer, four past presidents and dozens of sitting lawmakers under investigation.
Temer came under investigation after executives at the world's largest meatpacker, JBS SA, struck a plea deal with prosecutors and turned over vast amounts of evidence that they claim proves Temer took nearly $5 million in bribes in return for helping the company resolve massive tax issues, win contracts and other political favours.
As part of that deal, the billionaire brothers who control JBS, Joesley and Wesley Batista, managed to avoid serving any jail time, though they each had to pay 225 million reais in fines.
The fact that the brothers managed to avoid imprisonment despite testifying that they had shelled out 500 million reais in bribes to nearly 1,900 politicians in recent years enraged the public and largely prompted the Supreme Court to examine the plea-bargain issue.
Editing by Leslie Adler