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The Santa Maria disco fire is now officially the worst disaster in Brazil for half a century. But it would be wrong to interpret the tragedy in which 233 people died as just one more example of incompetence.

The mistakes made at the Kiss nightclub are disgustingly common and have been made repeatedly the world over. This list of the 10 deadliest modern nightclub fires includes several from the US, as well as from France and Argentina.

I’ve written and broadcast a lot recently about Brazil’s culture of impunity and how the mensalao trial indicates that this could be ending. (Some of Brazil’s best-known and most powerful politicians were last year found guilt of political corruption and they face considerable jail time.)

What happens in Santa Maria will give us a clear signal as to whether that culture of impunity really is coming to an end.

Many mistakes were made and many questions must be asked.

  •  – Were there enough emergency exits?
  •  – Were they big enough?
  •  – Were staff trained in evacuation and crowd management?
  •  – Why was the band allowed to use fireworks in an enclosed space?
  •  – Why was cheap and flammable acoustic foam used on the roof?
  •  – Why were the windows barred?
  •  – Did the club have the proper safety and fire certificates?
  •  – If they didn’t, who signed the papers that allowed the place to keep opening?

The issue now is addressing those questions and bringing those responsible to justice.

Brazil has made huge strides in recent years but only if those responsible for the deaths are brought to justice can it maintain that progress. Anything else would be a massive travesty and a slap in the face to the families of those who died.

Brazil’s Supreme Court is in the middle of its Big Brother moment. Everywhere you look there are old people in togas.

The justices are trying 38 people accused in the mensalao trial, the biggest and most gripping trial ever to come before the highest court. It’s live on television every day and what happens is headline news.

In addition, President Dilma Rousseff this week named a new justice, Teori Zavascki, 64, to replace Cezar Peluso who was forced to retire after turning 70 years old.

Here’s the odd thing. Peluso was forced to stand down in the middle of the biggest trial of the century because he reached mandatory retirement age. That could have potentially awkward consequences if the 10 remaining judges are deadlocked.

The other odd things is that Zavascki – if he passes the Senate confirmation – goes straight onto the bench and can vote in the mensalao trial – EVEN THOUGH HE HASN’T HEARD THE EVIDENCE SO FAR.

So here’s a thought. Why not make a provision for judges who reach retirement age to stay on until their ongoing trial ends, or until the current session is over?

And have his replacement take up his role at the start of the next case, not half way through the existing ones.

Wouldn’t that better serve the cause of justice?

(Speaking of Brazilian justice, here’s an excellent piece from Reuters on the same subject.)

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