By Daniel Bases
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff on Monday drew on her own experience as a political prisoner during the country's dictatorship to denounce informants in a corruption scandal that has pummeled her popularity.
Rousseff also forcefully denied her campaign had received illegal donations originating from the scandal, which involves kickbacks allegedly paid by construction companies to politicians and former executives at state-run oil firm Petrobras.
Speaking to journalists in New York, Rousseff contrasted her experience in jail in the early 1970s opposing Brazil's dictatorship with that of informants cooperating with prosecutors investigating the Petrobras scandal.
"I do not respect informants because I know, I was jailed in the dictatorship and they tried to turn me into one," she said following a speech to investors focused on infrastructure projects. As a young Marxist, Rousseff was jailed, hung upside down and tortured with electric shocks.
Many of the key informants in the Petrobras corruption scandal have turned state's witness after serving lengthy pre-trial jail terms.
Rousseff spoke after Veja magazine reported on Friday that Ricardo Pessoa, an executive linked to the scandal, had said in plea bargain testimony that part of the money resulting from the overpricing of contracts was donated to the campaigns of several politicians, including for Rousseff's 2014 re-election.
Pessoa, the head of Brazilian construction firm UTC Engenharia, is under house arrest. He was jailed last year and prosecutors say he may have led the cartel. Veja did not say how it obtained the details of his testimony.
Rousseff has denied knowing about corruption at Petroleo Brasileiro SA, or Petrobras, when she chaired its board from 2003 to 2010, when much of the alleged graft occurred.
The nine prosecutors who brought the case are known as "The Untouchables" in a country where the elite has enjoyed impunity. But defense lawyers have criticized their practice of combining preventive detention and plea bargaining, calling it coercion.
Monday was the first time Rousseff addressed Pessoa's testimony, though her Communications Minister Edinho Silva said on Friday that 7.5 million reais donated by Pessoa to Rousseff's 2014 campaign were legal and approved by electoral authorities. Silva was Rousseff's campaign treasurer.
Rousseff's chief of staff, Aloizio Mercadante, also denied donations made to him in 2010 by companies owned by Pessoa were linked to kickbacks.
Workers' Party Treasurer Joao Vaccari was arrested in April and will stand trial for corruption.
(Writing by Walter Brandimarte and Caroline Stauffer; Editing by Mary Milliken and Christian Plumb)