Brazil's Rousseff scores court win in impeachment case

Brasília (AFP) - Brazil's Supreme Court has ruled that Congress must restart impeachment proceedings against Dilma Rousseff from scratch and overhauled the procedure, in a badly needed win for the embattled president.

In an 8-3 decision, the judges annulled an opposition-dominated impeachment commission established by secret ballot in the lower house last week and ordered the procedure be restarted in an open vote.

It also gave the final word on whether to open an impeachment trial to the Senate, where Rousseff has greater support.

Rousseff is accused of fudging the government's accounts during her re-election campaign last year. The 68-year-old leftist maintains the budgeting maneuvers were accepted practice.

Under the court's ruling, a new commission to decide whether or not to impeach the president must now be created in an open vote by the lower house.

If the commission recommends impeachment, the decision will then pass to the full lower house -- and then, the judges ruled, to the Senate.

"It would be illogical for the Senate to act as a rubber stamp and execute whatever the lower house determines," said Supreme Court Justice Roberto Barroso.

If both chambers are needed to overcome a presidential veto, then "something more grave, like relieving a president -- shouldn't that also depend on both chambers?" he asked.

The march towards the unpopular president's possible ouster was stalled by her allies in Congress, who say opposition legislators violated the constitution in their rush toward impeachment.

They claimed the impeachment commission illegally insisted on secret votes while picking its members, and that it was stacked with Rousseff opponents.

The speaker of the lower house, Eduardo Cunha -- an outspoken Rousseff opponent -- oversaw the controversial session to form the commission and is an architect of the impeachment drive.

However, Cunha himself has been charged with taking millions of dollars in bribes.

- Respite for Rousseff --

Rousseff has not even completed the first year of her second term in office and is facing an economy in recession, a fiscal deficit, double-digit inflation and growing unemployment.

Rating agency Fitch cut Brazil's sovereign debt rating to junk status on Wednesday, the second downgrade for the world's seventh-biggest economy.

Then there is the Petrobras scandal, which has rocked Brazil to its core.

Contractors working with the state-run oil giant -- where Rousseff was once a senior manager -- allegedly paid bribes to politically connected Petrobras executives in order to land contracts, and the money was then allegedly divvied up with politicians.

Rousseff was cleared of wrongdoing in the Petrobras case, but that has not helped her approval rating, which has sunk to around nine percent.

So the Thursday ruling was some much needed good news for the president.

"Dilma won. It is a great victory for her," said Fundacion Getulio Vargas University law professor Michael Mohallem.

Rousseff also got some support on Wednesday from the first pro-government rallies since Cunha accepted an opposition request to impeach Rousseff on December 2.

Organizers said that nearly 300,000 people marched on Wednesday, though police said the actual number was closer to 50,000, the news site G1 reported.