Brazil's Senate starts judgment session for Rousseff

Sebastian Smith
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Suspended Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff delivers a speech during her testimony on the impeachment trial at National Congress in Brasilia on August 29, 2016

Suspended Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff delivers a speech during her testimony on the impeachment trial at National Congress in Brasilia on August 29, 2016 (AFP Photo/Evaristo Sa)

Brasília (AFP) - Brazil's Senate met Wednesday to vote on stripping Dilma Rousseff of the presidency in a traumatic impeachment trial set to end 13 years of leftist rule over Latin America's biggest country.

Senators and journalists crammed into the circular, blue carpeted chamber for what were likely to be the final few hours of Rousseff's presidency.

Votes were to be cast electronically after procedural questions and brief final presentations by the Supreme Court chief justice and senators.

A two-thirds majority -- or 54 of the 81 senators -- is required to convict Brazil's first female president on charges that she illegally manipulated the national budget.

Rousseff loyalists debated through the night in a final attempt to halt the seemingly unstoppable momentum toward her dismissal.

But despite the impassioned speeches, which followed 14 hours of testimony by Rousseff earlier this week, her fate was apparently sealed.

If Rousseff, 68, is ejected, her vice president turned bitter political enemy, Michel Temer, will be sworn in at about 3:00 pm (1800 GMT).

The veteran center-right politician, whom Rousseff accuses of using the impeachment process to mount a coup, was to leave by nightfall for a G20 summit in China.

Rousseff remained holed up at the Alvorada presidential palace along with close allies, including leftist icon and ex-president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

"She's fine, she's calm," a spokesman for Rousseff told AFP.

About 50 leftist demonstrators gathered outside the palace grounds to show their support.

"We are protesting against the coup and fighting for democracy," said 61-year-old farmer Orlando Ribeiro.

In Brasilia, extra security and the closing of avenues near the Senate caused massive traffic jams. Police said they were preparing for large protests later in the day.

- Popular anger against Rousseff -

Rousseff, from the leftist Workers' Party, is accused of taking illegal state loans to patch budget holes in 2014, masking the country's problems as it slid into its deepest recession in decades.

She told the Senate on Monday that she is innocent and that abuse of the impeachment process put Brazil's democracy, restored in 1985 after a two-decades-long military dictatorship, at risk.

Recalling how she was tortured and imprisoned in the 1970s for belonging to a leftist guerrilla group, Rousseff urged senators to "vote against impeachment, vote for democracy... Do not accept a coup."

However, huge anti-Rousseff street demonstrations over the last year have reflected nationwide anger at her management of a country suffering double-digit unemployment and inflation.

The once mighty Workers' Party, meanwhile, has struggled to stage more than small rallies.

Temer, who was in an uncomfortable partnership with Rousseff before finally splitting, will be president until the next scheduled elections in late 2018 if she is removed from office.

The 75-year-old, known more as a backroom wheeler-dealer than street politician, took over in an interim role after Rousseff's initial suspension in May.

He immediately named a new government with an agenda of shifting Brazil to the right after more than a decade of leftist rule that saw 29 million people lifted from poverty, but became bogged down in corruption and the economic slump.

Temer has earned plaudits from investors, but it remains uncertain whether he will have voters' support to push through the painful austerity reforms he promises.

- Emotions spill over -

Lawyers presenting closing arguments on Tuesday could not hold back their emotions as the clock wound down on a crisis that has paralyzed Brazilian politics for months, helping deepen national gloom over recession and runaway corruption.

A lead lawyer for the case against Rousseff, Senator Janaina Paschoal, wept as she asked forgiveness for causing the president "suffering," but insisted it was the right thing to do.

"The Brazilian people must be aware that nothing illegal and illegitimate is being done here," she said.

Rousseff's counsel, veteran lawyer Jose Eduardo Cardozo, retorted that the charges were trumped up to punish the president's support for a huge corruption investigation that has snared many of Brazil's elite.

"This is a farce," he said in a speech during which his voice alternated between shouts and near whispers.

"We should ask her forgiveness if she is convicted," he added. "History will treat her fairly. History will absolve Dilma Rousseff if you convict her."