The head of Brazil's central corruption probe that has targeted dozens of politicians over the past two years, Judge Sergio Moro, has requested a formal leave of absence for the end of 2018, triggering speculation that his landmark investigations will finally come to a close in little more than a year.
The investigations, known as Operation Car Wash, are at the core of the country’s corruption probes looking into accusations of money laundering and fraud involving the state-run oil company, Petrobras. Scores of high-profile politicians, including unelected President Michel Temer and several of his top allies, have been caught up in the scandal.
The request by Sergio Moro for a temporary leave from his duties to study in the United States was revealed by the Folha de Sao Paulo newspaper, which added that people close to Moro have made it clear he would not leave Brazil before his work with the Car Wash probe is complete.
Moro is highly controversial figure, revered in some circles for his role in the Operation Car Wash investigations and despised in others for allegedly targeting leftist politicians disproportionately while ignoring the rampant graft committed by right-wing politicians.
The Car Wash probe has jailed dozens of political and corporate elites involved in a widespread corruption scandal linked to Petrobras.
Amid speculation about the future of the investigations, thousands of demonstrators clad in the national colors of yellow and green gathered Sunday along Rio de Janeiro's Copacabana waterfront waving banners with messages like "Thieves Out!" and "We are all Sergio Moro."
Demonstrators took to the streets in response to a recent effort by the Brazilian Congress to gut an anti-corruption bill.
The lower house of Congress passed the bill in the early hours of Wednesday morning by 450 votes to 1, and it is now being considered by the Senate.
The bill could result in jail time for judges and attorneys who accuse public sector authorities "in a fearful way," which is being seen by analysts as an attempt to put a stop to Operation Car Wash. The proposed measures come months after leaked wiretap recordings revealed that top rivals of former President Dilma Rousseff — ousted in a move widely condemned as a parliamentary coup — hoped to benefit from her impeachment by using it to halt the corruption investigations targeting them.
Moro said the proposal sends the wrong signal to a country that wants to see tougher actions against corruption.
The bill would also help shield lawmakers from prosecution and comes as Operation Car Wash moves closer to charging a significant number of lawmakers implicated in the Petrobras scandal.
Upwards of 80 employees of the Brazilian construction conglomerate Odebrecht are negotiating plea bargains and a leniency deal for the company, closely tied to the scandal. In return, they must testify about the conglomerate's central role in a scheme involving contracts with Petrobras. Their testimonies are expected to implicate more than 100 current and former Brazilian politicians.
Critics of the changes are hoping President Michel Temer, also implicated in the Car Wash investigations, will veto the measures if it clears the Senate.
Presidential spokesman Marcio de Freitas said Temer would only decide whether to exercise veto power when and if the issue comes to his desk. "The anti-corruption measures are still in Congress," he told Reuters. "We must wait to see what gets approved."