Court ruling moves Temer closer to leaving jail

Former Brazilian President Michel Temer, center, leaves his residence inside a federal police vehicle as he turns himself in for arrest on corruption charges as part of a sprawling graft probe in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Thursday, May 9, 2019, a day after a judge ruled he should await trial in jail. (AP Photo/Andre Penner)

RIO DE JANEIRO — A four-judge panel voted unanimously Tuesday to release former President Michel Temer from being detained while he faces an investigation into alleged corruption, the latest development in a series of contradictory rulings.

Justices on the Brazilian Superior Court of Justice in Brasilia found that the circumstances did not justify the use of preventative custody for the 78-year-old politician, who has been detained twice since leaving the presidency Jan. 1.

Although the decision was provisional, with the four justices to deliver a final verdict later, their vote will allow Temer to return home. A judge at a criminal court in Rio de Janeiro has to sign off on the decision before Temer can leave the Sao Paulo police headquarters, where he has been detained for nearly a week.

Temer is being investigated for allegedly taking bribes from the Engevix construction company in exchange for a government contract to build a nuclear power plant in the city of Angra dos Reis, in the southern part of Rio de Janeiro state. He denies any wrongdoing.

In the superior court deliberations, Justice Antonio Saldanha Palheiro argued that the seriousness of the alleged crimes — corruption, money laundering and criminal organization — "is not an argument in itself to justify" holding someone before a trial.

Justice Rogerio Schietti Cruz said the presumption of innocence "assured the defendant the right not to be treated in the process as if already convicted."

Temer, who was president in 2016-2019, was first arrested March 21, but released five days later. He was detained again May 9 under an order from another court.

The judges on Tuesday also freed a close Temer associate, Col. Joao Baptista Lima Filho, from detention. In March, prosecutors said an Engevix executive had claimed in a plea bargain testimony that he paid more than $300,000 in 2014 to a company owned by Lima.

The investigation is part of the wider "Operation Car Wash" probe that began in 2014 and has ensnared many of Brazil's top politicians and business executives. Another former Brazilian president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, is currently serving a sentence of eight years and 10 months.

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