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Brazil's graft scandal heats up with 83 new probes sought

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Brazil's prosecutor general Rodrigo Janot (pictured) on Tuesday requested permission to open 83 new corruption probes against politicians in an escalation of a vast graft scandal shaking Latin America's biggest country.

[BRASÍLIA] Brazil's prosecutor general Rodrigo Janot on Tuesday requested permission to open 83 new corruption probes against politicians in an escalation of a vast graft scandal shaking Latin America's biggest country.

Mr Janot sent his request to the Supreme Court, which handles cases involving serving members of Congress or the government, his office said in a statement.

There was no immediate indication of which politicians were being targeted or how many, since each probe could involve more than one person, while a politician could also be named more than once.

However, Mr Janot asked the court to unseal the cases so that the details can be made public, "considering the necessity to promote transparency and to safeguard the public interest". It was not clear how quickly the Supreme Court would give its response.

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The complaints against the politicians ramp up the so-called Car Wash probe, which has uncovered massive embezzlement and bribery based on state-oil company Petrobras.

The accusations in Mr Janot's list are based on a deluge of testimony given in connection with plea bargains struck with 77 former executives of the giant Odebrecht construction firm, which was at the heart of the Petrobras scheme.

The former Odebrecht employees, including ex-CEO Marcelo Odebrecht, have confessed to systemic bribery of politicians in exchange for inflated contracts with Petrobras and favourable legislation in Congress. The money went either directly into politicians' pockets or into party campaign slush funds.

Speculation has been mounting over whether ministers in President Michel Temer's centre-right government will be included on the list. Several have already had to resign due to involvement in the Car Wash scandal since Temer took power last year.

Mr Temer himself has been implicated in Odebrecht testimony for allegedly asking for unregistered campaign donations to his PMDB party. He says that he did nothing illegal.

Mr Temer is also involved in a separate case at the Supreme Electoral Court which is looking into whether his 2014 election as vice president on the ticket with then president Dilma Rousseff benefitted from campaign slush funds.

The court could, in theory, annul the election's result, creating yet another wave of instability for Brazil, which is mired in its worst recession in history.

After seemingly endless revelations of high-level corruption connected to Petrobras, political parties and major contractors, the Odebrecht testimony has been likened in the capital Brasilia to the end of the world.

Tension has been rising since last week as Brazilian media continuously reported that Mr Janot was on the point of making his bombshell request to the Supreme Court, only for another day to pass without incident.

Now that Mr Janot has pulled the trigger, the focus will shift to the contents of the list and whether Mr Temer's fragile government is about to take yet another series of hits, just as he tries to guide market reforms through Congress.

In addition to the 83 cases against politicians handled by the Supreme Court, Mr Janot requested the opening of 211 cases against others under the jurisdiction of regular courts.

The stipulation that the Supreme Court handles any serving member of Congress and the cabinet is seen as a form of protection for politicians, since the highest court works slowly. Estimates are that it could take years for the court to pronounce a sentence in the current cases - if they get to trial at all.

Many of those outside the Supreme Court's jurisdiction will likely face Operation Car Wash's chief judge Sergio Moro.

Among the high-profile figures in Brazil facing trial outside the Supreme Court is former leftist president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who is accused of taking bribes from Petrobras contractors.

Mr Lula, who will face five separate trials, denies any involvement in corruption and says the legal onslaught is designed to stop him seeking re-election in 2018.