RIO DE JANEIRO -- Brazil's high court on Monday sentenced one of the most powerful figures in the governing Workers Party to nearly 11 years in prison for orchestrating a vast vote-buying scheme, sending shock waves through Brazil's political establishment.
Justices in the Supreme Federal Tribunal, or Supreme Court, announced that José Dirceu de Oliveira e Silva, a top ally of and chief of staff to Brazil's popular former president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, was sentenced to 10 years and 10 months in prison after being found guilty of charges that are roughly the equivalent of unlawful conspiracy and bribery.
The length of the sentence for such an influential political operative, who is commonly called José Dirceu in Brazil, and the mere possibility that he could spend some time in prison before being paroled, stood as precedent-setting shifts in a political culture in which impunity in corruption cases has traditionally prevailed, legal scholars said.
"This is a watershed moment," said Thiago Bottino, a law professor at Fundação Getúlio Vargas, a top Brazilian university. "The court is sending a message that this concrete case is very serious."
The sentencing of José Dirceu, 66, who spent part of Brazil's long military dictatorship exiled in Cuba, came amid a flurry of other sentences the court handed down in the trial.
José Genoino Guimarães Neto, the former president of the Workers Party at the time the scandal emerged in 2005, received a sentence on Monday of almost seven years. In October, Marcos Valério de Souza, a businessman who was found to have operated much of the embezzlement scheme, got a 40-year sentence and was ordered to pay a fine of about $1.3 million.
It remained to be seen how much time those convicted would actually spend in prison, and when their terms would begin, raising concerns that defendants would find ways to wiggle out of time behind bars. Brazil's judicial system allows for certain procedural appeals, even at this seemingly defining stage in a high court trial.
In addition, some Brazilian legal scholars, including former justices on the court, say the defendants cannot go to prison until the high court formally publishes its decision in the case, which it is expected to do in early 2013. But Prosecutor General Roberto Gurgel publicly argued this month that defendants should start serving sentences almost immediately after they are announced.
In the case of José Dirceu, the sentence for his role in the sprawling scheme -- called the mensalão, or big monthly allowance, in a nod to the regular payments some lawmakers received -- almost ensures that he will spend time behind bars.
Legal experts calculated on Monday that he might have to serve almost two years in prison before becoming eligible for a so-called semi-open arrangement in which he could leave prison each day to work, and return to sleep. It is very rare in Brazil for senior political figures to spend much time in prison for corruption and other offenses.
Lis Horta Moriconi contributed reporting.world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.