SAO PAULO (AP) — Brazil's Supreme Court has ordered the release of a former presidential chief of staff convicted in a major corruption investigation, a decision that anti-graft crusaders say could open the door to freedom for other prominent political figures caught in the so-called Car Wash probe.
A five-judge panel ruled 3-2 Tuesday that Jose Dirceu, who served under former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, should be released, and only sent back to prison if the full court upholds his conviction.
The 71-year-old Dirceu was serving a 31 year sentence for corruption, money-laundering and association with a criminal organization. He has been in prison since 2015.
A date for a ruling on Dirceu's appeal has not been set.
Former Finance Minister Antonio Palocci, who recently opened negotiations to sign a plea bargain deal, also filed a request on Wednesday for his release in Brazil's top court.
The court said Judge Sergio Moro, who sentenced Dirceu, should adopt alternatives to jail, such as electronic monitoring bracelet a prohibition that Dirceu leave his home on the outskirts of Sao Paulo. Supreme Court justices said there's little chance that the former chief of staff could interfere in the current investigations and that the alleged crimes were committed long ago.
The decision to free Dirceu led to bitter words between Justice Gilmar Mendes and prosecutors handling the multinational probe of corruption focused on the state-run oil giant Petrobras.
Mendes accused prosecutors of trying to pressure judges to maintain imprisonment for Dirceu, who was hit with new charges filed on Tuesday.
Mendes called those charges a "teenage joke ... made by youngsters that have no institutional experience. If we succumbed to this pressure, we would not be the Supreme Court anymore."
Prosecutor Deltan Dallagnol, meanwhile accused Mendes and other justice of making an "incoherent" ruling.
"In the last six months they voted to keep in prison people who were in a much less serious situation (than Dirceu's)," Dallagnol said in his social media feeds.
Mendes, who last week also ordered the release of tycoon Eike Batista on similar grounds, has been involved in involved in a series of recent controversies.
While he oversees a court considering a case that could lead to removal of President Michel Temer, Mendes frequently visits the presidential palace and residence and he has been a vocal critic of the Car Wash investigations, leading figures of the Worker's Party and even colleagues who make decisions that differ from his.
In March last year, Mendes blocked former President Silva from becoming chief of staff of his successor Dilma Rousseff, alleging the nomination was an attempt to transfer investigations on the left-leaning leader from a low court to the Supreme Court.
Many politicians saw that ruling as decisive to the opening of an impeachment process against Rousseff a few weeks later.