May 28, 2017 / 7:57 PM / 2 months ago

Scandal-hit Brazilian leader Temer picks new justice minister

Brazil's President Michel Temer smiles during a meeting with representatives of the Brazilian Chamber of Construction Industry and businessmen, at the Planalto Palace in Brasilia, Brazil, May 25, 2017.Ueslei Marcelino

BRASILIA (Reuters) - Scandal-plagued Brazilian President Michel Temer on Sunday named a new justice minister, placing a respected legal figure in the position as the leader defends himself against corruption allegations.

The presidential palace gave no reason for naming Torquato Jardim as his new justice minister in a short written statement.

Since March, Jardim was the nation's transparency minister, a portfolio created by Temer. Before that, he had served as a justice on Brazil's top electoral court.

Jardim replacea Osmar Serraglio, a lawmaker from Temer's own party, who had been in that post for just three months. A source close to Temer told Reuters that Serraglio will soon be announced as the new transparency minister.

The Justice Ministry oversees Brazil's federal police, who along with federal prosecutors are leading massive corruption probes, including the "Car Wash" political graft investigation now looking at Temer.

Carlos Sobral, head of the national association of federal police inspectors, said the abrupt change in ministers was worrying.

"We were surprised with the news of the change," he said in an emailed statement. "Any changes in the Justice Ministry command create uncertainty and worry about possible interference in the work done by federal police."

Sobral called on Congress to approve a measure pending before the body that would grant autonomy to federal police.

Temer's change in ministers came as thousands of protesters gathered on the golden sands of Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro to demand the president's resignation and that direct elections be called.

Several of Brazil's most famous actors and musicians led the rally, which despite the star appeal drew a smaller crowd than the 50,000 demonstrators organizers expected. Police said they would not divulge an estimate on the number of people present.

Temer has refused to resign and denies any wrongdoing.

Recent polls show that 85 percent asked want a new election. But it is unlikely to happen as that would require a constitutional amendment be passed through Congress, where scores of politicians are under investigation for graft.

If Temer falls from office, the constitution mandates that Congress appoint a new president, who would finish the current term that ends on Jan. 1, 2019.

Reporting by Lisandra Parragassu in Brasilia, Brad Brooks in Sao Paulo and Paulo Whitaker in Rio de Janeiro; Writing by Brad Brooks; Editing by Mary Milliken

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