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Jun 26, 2013

Congress shelves controversial bill

There were more violent scenes in Rio de Janierio as protesters clashed with riot police

BRASILIA, Brazil -- Brazil's congress has shelved legislation that was a target of nationwide protests, hours before another round of demonstrations on Wednesday.

The lower house of congress voted 403-9 late Tuesday to drop a measure that would have limited the investigative powers of federal prosecutors, a bill that many feared would make it harder to prosecute official corruption.

The wave of protests that hit Brazil on June 17 began as opposition to transportation fare hikes, then expanded to a laundry list of causes including anger at high taxes, poor services and high World Cup spending, before coalescing around the issue of rampant government corruption.

It has become the largest eruption of public demonstrations Latin America's biggest nation has seen in two decades.

At many protests across Brazil in the past week, a sea of signs denounced the proposal to strip prosecutors of the ability to investigate, known as the "PEC 37" measure. Many demonstrators vowed to keep returning to the streets until it was knocked down.

"The PEC 37 only served to protect the corrupt," said Aline Campos, a 29-year-old publicist at a recent protest in Brasilia. "Society wants more effort to combat corruption, not less."

Federal prosecutors were behind the investigation into the so-called "mensalao" cash-for-votes scheme that came to light in 2005. It involved top aides of former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva buying off members of congress to vote for their legislation.

Last year, the supreme court sentenced two dozen people in connection with the case, and it was hailed as a watershed moment in Brazil's fight against corruption. However, those sentenced have yet to be jailed because of appeals, a delay that has enraged Brazilians.

On Wednesday, the top court again flexed its anti-corruption muscles by ordering the immediate imprisonment of congressman Natan Donadon, who was found guilty on corruption charges in 2010 and who has now exhausted all appeals.

Before mass protests broke out on June 17, the PEC 37 legislation appeared heading to easy victory in the lower house of congress.

"It was on the streets that the blindness of the politicians was lifted," said Domingos Dutra, a congressman who has often butted heads with leaders of his ruling Workers Party.

Congress also approved a bill earmarking 75 percent of oil royalties to fund education and 25 percent to health services.

Earlier this week, President Dilma Rousseff announced investments of $23 billion in transportation and said her government would start projects aimed at five key areas where protesters have demanded improvements: fiscal responsibility and controlling inflation, political reform, health care, public transport and education.

Rousseff also said she would push for a special constitutional assembly that would hear from the Brazilian public about what action needs to be taken to improve Brazil's political system. Opposition lawmakers questioned that action, arguing that only congress has the right to call such an assembly. After meeting with the chief justice of the supreme court on Tuesday, Rousseff's office said Wednesday she will continue to push for a plebiscite on political reform -- but dropped the push for the constitutional assembly.

Social media sites used by protest organizers were calling for more big demonstrations on Wednesday, with the largest expected in the city of Belo Horizonte, where the Brazilian national football team plays a match against Uruguay in a semifinal of the Confederations Cup, the warm-up tournament to next year's World Cup.

Protests are expected in several other cities as well.

In Belo Horizonte, protester Jose Barbosa Neto used a megaphone to try to talk to Brazil's football players outside the hotel where they were staying.

"I'm against all the money that was spent to build stadiums while our people are suffering across the country. I'm here protesting peacefully for a better country," he said. "I don't want to be watching these matches, I'd rather be protesting for a better country."

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