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Brazil Supreme Court Votes to Indict Lower House Speaker on Graft Charges

FILE - Brazil's Supreme Court voted to accept corruption charges against lower house speaker Eduardo Cunha, shown here in Brasilia, Brazil, Dec. 7, 2015.

A majority of Brazil's Supreme Court voted to accept corruption charges against lower house speaker Eduardo Cunha on Wednesday, putting him on trial for allegedly accepting bribes on contracts for two drill ships leased by state oil company Petrobras.

The ruling, which must be officially confirmed at the end of the court's session, is a setback to Cunha as he struggles to fend off a request from Brazil's top prosecutor for his removal as speaker for obstructing the investigation into the Petrobras graft scandal.

A bitter political rival of President Dilma Rousseff, Cunha could also lose his seat if an ethics committee inquiry underway finds he lied about undeclared Swiss bank accounts.

Cunha, who comes from the PMDB party that is Rousseff's main coalition ally, broke with her last year and in December took up an opposition request for the impeachment of the president.

But the case against him at the Supreme Court — the only court that can try elected officials in Brazil — could hasten Cunha's downfall and undermine efforts to impeach Rousseff.

"This is the first time a speaker of the house is on trial for corruption in Brazil and he is still not resigning his post, which shows the extent of the moral deterioration of Brazilian politics," said Gabriel Petrus, an analyst with the Brasilia-based consultancy Barral M Jorge Associates.

Widespread scheme

Cunha faces charges of receiving a $5 million bribe in the widening price-fixing and political kickback scheme that has landed executives of top engineering companies in jail and ensnared dozens of politicians from Rousseff's coalition.

In August, a judge sentenced former Petrobras international director Nestor Cervero to more than 12 years in prison for corruption and money laundering related to the bribe allegedly paid to Cunha in exchange for contracts with Korean shipbuilder Samsung Heavy Industries for two drill ships.

Executives at Samsung Heavy Industries were not charged in the case involving the drill ship Petrobras 10000, which was leased jointly by Petrobras and Mitsui in 2006, and the Vitoria 10000, hired by Petrobras in 2007.