Brazil's president proclaims innocence at impeachment trial

By MAURICIO SAVARESE - Associated Press and PETER PRENGAMAN - Associated Press ,

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Brazil's suspended President Dilma Rousseff holds up a chart as she speaks at her own impeachment trial, in Brasilia, Brazil, Monday, Aug. 29, 2016. Fighting to save her job, Rousseff told senators on Monday that the allegations against her have no merit.

Brazil's suspended President Dilma Rousseff holds up a chart as she speaks at her own impeachment trial, in Brasilia, Brazil, Monday, Aug. 29, 2016. Fighting to save her job, Rousseff told senators on Monday that the allegations against her have no merit. (Photo: Eraldo Peres)

Brazil's suspended president proclaimed her innocence Monday, branding her vice president a "usurper" and warning senators that history would judge them harshly if they ousted a democratically elected leader on false charges.

Dilma Rousseff's much anticipated speech to the lawmakers who will decide this week whether to permanently remove her from office was characterized by the same defiance she has shown throughout an impeachment process that has divided Latin America's most populous nation.

"I know I will be judged, but my conscience is clear. I did not commit a crime," Rousseff told senators, who listened intently in contrast to the chamber's usual raucousness.

In the middle of her second term, the left-leaning leader has been accused of breaking fiscal rules to hide problems in the federal budget. She has denied any wrongdoing, accusing her opponents of a "coup d'état."

Rousseff reminded those in attendance that she was re-elected in 2014 by more than 54 million votes, asserting that at every moment since she has followed the constitution and sought to do what was best for the country.

Brazil's first female president is a former guerrilla fighter who was jailed and tortured during the country's dictatorship, and Rousseff drew a connection between her past and the situation today.

"I can't help but taste the bitterness of injustice," she said of the process that will decide not only her fate but the nation's political future.

During her 30-minite speech, Rousseff argued that in early 2015 opposition lawmakers began creating a climate of instability by refusing to negotiate and throwing what she called "fiscal bombs" in the face of declining revenues.

She said the impeachment process had exacerbated the recession in Latin America's largest economy, placing the blame on the opposition, which has argued that she has to be removed for the financial climate to improve.

Rousseff blasted interim President Michel Temer as a "usurper." Her vice president turned arch-enemy, Temer took over when the Senate voted in May to impeach and suspend Rousseff for up to 180 days while a trial was prepared. He will serve out Rousseff's term if she is removed.

Referring to Temer, Rousseff said Brazilians would never have elected a man who named a Cabinet of all white men in a country that is more than 50 percent non-white. The Cabinet that Temer put in place in May has been roundly criticized for its lack of diversity, and three of his ministers were forced to step down within a month of taking office because of corruption allegations.

Rousseff asserted she had paid a price for refusing to quash a wide-ranging police investigation into the state oil company Petrobras, saying that corrupt lawmakers conspired to oust her to derail the investigation into billions in kickbacks at the oil giant.

The investigation has led to the jailing of top businessmen and politicians, including in her Workers' Party. But they have plenty of company: Watchdog groups estimate 60 percent of the 594 lawmakers in both chambers are being investigated for wrongdoing, many for corruption related to the Petrobras probe.

Rousseff said it was "an irony of history" that she would be judged for crimes she did not commit, by people who were accused of serious crimes.

"I ask that you be just with an honest president," she said, her voice cracking with emotion.

Watching the proceedings, Rousseff's mentor and predecessor as president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who is himself under investigation, said: "She said what she had to say."

After Rousseff's speech, senators from both the opposition and her bloc of supporters began questioning her, a process that was expected to extend late into Monday night. Her appearance is to be followed by a Senate vote on whether to remove her permanently from the presidency, expected as early as Tuesday or perhaps Wednesday.

For Rousseff to be removed, at least 54 of the 81 senators need to vote in favor. Counts by local media find that 52 senators have said they plan on voting for removal, while 18 are opposed and 11 have not said one way or another. In May, the same body voted 55-21 to impeach and suspend her.

One of the sharpest exchanges came with Sen. Aecio Neves, who narrowly lost the presidential election to Rousseff in 2014. Neves charged that Rousseff won by lying to voters and "committing illegalities" with the budget maneuvers. While the impeachment measure focuses only on 2015, many senators accuse Rousseff of fiscal improprieties before that.

Rousseff brushed Neves off, saying that the day after she was re-elected "several measures were taken to destabilize my government."

As questioning of the suspended leader wore on Monday night, only a few senators were paying attention to Rousseff's answers, which tended to be lengthy.

Rousseff's appearance came on the fourth day of a trial that has seen name-calling, shouting and a declaration by Senate President Renan Calheiros that "stupidity is limitless."

The process began late last year, with the Chamber of Deputies approving impeachment charges in April and the Senate in May.

The drama has consumed Brazil, with the proceedings continuing even during the Aug. 5-21 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. On Monday, several hundred supporters demonstrated outside Congress, cheering when Rousseff arrived. A huge wall was erected to separate her supporters and pro-impeachment activists.

Before Rousseff spoke, Supreme Court Chief Justice Ricardo Lewandowski, who is presiding over the trial, warned senators and spectators to remain silent.

When Rousseff finished speaking, many senators applauded, prompting Lewandowski to temporarily suspend the session.

"We are holding a judgment trial here, not a political debate," he said.

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