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Brazil orders convicted ruling party officials to begin prison time

(Reuters) – Brazil’s Supreme Court on Friday ordered former leaders of the ruling Workers’ Party to begin serving sentences following landmark convictions over a congressional vote-buying scheme in a country with a long history of political corruption.

Jose Dirceu, a party founder and former chief of staff to former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, turned himself in to federal police Friday evening to begin serving a prison sentence of more than 10 years.

He is one of 12 ordered to serve time over a scandal that nearly toppled the government during the first of the left-leaning party’s three administrations.

Jose Genoino, a former party president and a congressman on leave because of poor health, also turned himself in to start a nearly seven-year sentence. Delubio Soares, a former party treasurer who faces an eight-year sentence, was expected to appear as well.

A spokesman for the Federal Police said the detainees would be flown to the capital Brasilia over the weekend to start serving sentences that in some cases involve only night-time incarceration.

While the trial wrapped up last year, the court only now has begun imposing the first of the sentences for crimes ranging from corruption to racketeering to money laundering.

The scandal emerged after an embittered Workers Party ally, who is also one of those convicted, spoke out about the scheme, which involved monthly payments to lawmakers in exchange for support in Congress.

Despite the delays, not uncommon in a country with a notoriously slow judicial system, the imprisonments are being applauded by many Brazilians because they are considered a sign of at least partial progress against a culture long tolerant of corruption.

Along with bad public services and a sluggish economy, disgust with corruption was one of the many factors that led hundreds of thousands of Brazilians to take to the streets in a series of mass protests in June.

Though the protests have grown smaller, the demonstrations are still ongoing and are likely to flare back up ahead of presidential elections next October, especially when global attention turns to the country as it hosts the World Cup of soccer in June and July.

President Dilma Rousseff, who is expected to seek re-election, has not been affected by the convictions because she took office five years after the scandal broke and was considered instrumental, as Dirceu’s successor as Lula’s chief of staff, in restoring order to his administration.

(Additional reporting by Anthony Boadle in Brasilia; Writing by Paulo Prada and Philip Barbara)

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