Eduardo Cunha, who led the drive to impeach Brazil's former president, was arrested for allegedly taking about $40 million in bribes. Photograph: (Getty)
Eduardo Cunho was nabbed for taking about $40 million in bribes relating to the sprawling scandal at state oil company, Petrobras
Brazilian police on Wednesday arrested Eduardo Cunha, the driving force behind former president Dilma Rousseff's impeachment, in a new escalation of a corruption probe shaking Latin America's biggest country.
"We can confirm that (Cunha) was detained in Brasilia," a police spokesman told AFP. Cunha was later flown under close guard to Curitiba, where the probe into a sprawling embezzlement and bribery ring at flagship state oil company Petrobras is based.
Cunha, who has been nicknamed "Brazil's Frank Underwood" after the scheming main character in the dark US political TV series "House of Cards", has been accused of taking some $40 million in Petrobras-related bribes, laundering money and hiding funds in secret Swiss bank accounts.
Cunha, 58, denies all the charges. "This is an absurd decision, without motive," he said in a Facebook post.
In addition to his detention, the authorities ordered the seisure of eight cars, including two Porsche Cayennes, along with other assets worth nearly $70 million.
Top anti-corruption judge Sergio Moro said the detention was necessary because of risks to "public order, as well as a concrete possibility of flight given his access to hidden resources abroad, as well as double nationality," the justice department said.
Part of Brazil's growing conservative evangelical movement, Cunha has long been a consummate mover and shaker, and became the architect of Rousseff's removal from office in August on charges that she broke government budget laws.
The leftist Rousseff, from the Workers' Party, was replaced by Michel Temer, from Cunha's own centre-right Party of the Brazilian Democratic Movement (PMDB). Rousseff, who was not accused of enriching herself, also claims that her impeachment was motivated by her refusal to shut down the massive Petrbras scam, dubbed "Operation Car Wash".
Rousseff's supporters say her impeachment amounted to a coup by the country's right wing. Cunha's triumph over her was short-lived, as the corruption allegations caught up with him. He was stripped of his congressional seat in September, losing his parliamentary legal privileges.
Is Lula next?
Cunha's downfall signals that the mammoth Petrobras corruption probe headed by Moro is far from over.
Dozens of politicians, from the Workers' Party but also numerous figures on the right as well as business executives, have already been charged or convicted in the embezzlement and bribery scheme. Rousseff's presidential predecessor, the leftist icon Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, faces three corruption-related court cases. Speculation is rife that he may also be placed in pre-trial detention.
"Now it will be Lula's turn. He's next," said Alberto Almeida from the Analysis Institute in Sao Paulo.
More, there is speculation Cunha could turn on old allies and strike a plea bargain with prosecutors, fueling a new wave of corruption cases. The Guardian claims that he came to power by knowing the secrets of others, and it's already said he is writing a book. Analysts say that Temer's government will be nervous about fallout.
"The political consequences will depend on how long he remains in detention," Almeida said. "He has a lot of information on Dilma's government, on the house of deputies, different parties."
Temer, who has seen several of his ministerial choices targeted in the Petrobras inquiry, "Operation Car Wash", rejects suggestions that he is seeking to curb the probe.
Even behind bars, Cunha is likely to continue fascinating and scaring the political elite. A master at maintaining influence even as his legal troubles piled up, Cunha used multiple stalling tactics to impede his eventual ouster from Congress. The process dragged on for almost a year, the longest in Brazilian history.
The authorities cited that proven skill as one of the reasons for ordering his detention.
"Although the loss of his mandate probably represents some loss of power," Moro wrote, "this was not totally exhausted, since the total extent of the ex-deputy's criminal activities and of his circle of influence are still unknown."
(WION with inputs fom agencies)