In Brazil's biggest protests since the end of the military dictatorship in 1985, thousands have poured into the streets in cities cities across the country to denounce President Dilma Rousseff's appointment of her predecessor and political mentor, Luiz Inacio "Lula" da Silva, as chief of staff. Days of nationwide demonstrations reached a climax as Lula was sworn in on March 17. In Brasilia, riot police fired pepper spray to disperse protesters who massed outside the presidential palace, chanting "Dilma out!" Demonstrators say Rousseff transparently appointed Lula in order to give him immunity as he comes under investigation in a corruption scandal at the state oil company Petrobras.
Lula was briefly detained by police for questioning March 4 over allegations of money laundering connected to "Operation Car Wash," a massive investigation into corruption at Petrobras. On his release without charge, leaders of the ruling Workers' Party (PT) urged supporters to wage a "political war" against "coup-mongers." On March 10, São Paulo state prosecutors asked a judge to issue an arrest warrant for Lula in a separate case, asserting that he had concealed ownership of a seaside property. Lula denies both allegations, saying they are aimed at preventing him from running for president again in 2018.
Hours after Rousseff announced Lula's appointment March 16, Judge Sergio Moro, who is heading the Petrobras investigation, ordered the release of an intercepted phone call between the pair, seeming to acknowledge that Lula had been appointed to give him immunity from prosecution "if necessary." Shortly after Lula's swearing-in, a federal judge in Brasilia issued an injunction to suspend his appointment on the grounds it prevented "the free exercise of justice." The Attorney General of the Union said it would appeal to a higher court, allowing the appointment to move ahead.
Shaken by the scandal, Petrobras is reportedly considering a "voluntary" layoff program intended to reduce headcount by 12,000 positions (BBC News, Reuters, Reuters, Daily Mail, Al Jazeera, Barron's, Maritime Executive, March 17; The Economist, March 14)
Moves to further open Petrobras to private investment and partnerships with foreign companies have also sparked protests in recent years—especially following revelations that the company had been targetted for surveillance by the US National Security Agency.