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Collor wins last-ditch reprieve

PRESIDENT Fernando Collor de Mello's impeachment trial, due to have begun this morning, was delayed for a week by Brazil's Supreme Court chief last night after Mr Collor dismissed his lawyers.

The last-minute reprieve comes three months after Mr Collor was suspended as president over corruption allegations. If he is impeached, he will be barred from public office for the rest of the century. Criminal proceedings are expected to follow, carrying charges that, if proved, could put him behind bars until beyond 2000.

When Mr Collor swept to power as Brazil's first directly elected president three years ago, his economic 'shock plan' proposed a liquidity squeeze to drain excess money out of the economy and a ceiling on private bank withdrawals. According to the impeachment charges, however, his own bank deposits ballooned as he and his aides allegedly drained up to dollars 200m ( pounds 128m) a year from the economy by the simplest of methods - one to me, one to you.

The situation represents an astonishing turnaround for the dashing young president. When he won the 1989 election, he appeared to have everything: looks, power, policies and image. Even Rio's slum-dwellers were impressed by the man who proclaimed himself the saviour of the 'shirtless and shoeless'.

'I will slay with a single shot the tiger of hyperinflation,' then a dizzying 2,700 per cent a year, he promised. But he only wounded the beast, cutting the annual rate to 1,500 per cent a year. 'The maharajas of the bureaucracy,' rapacious civil servants, were another target. But according to the impeachment allegations and criminal charges, he and his aides gave the bureaucrats a lesson in how to rake in serious money.

Mr Collor's world began to fall apart in May and his presidency turned into the kind of soap opera that glues Brazilians to their television screens. Mr Collor's brother Pedro announced that the president was receiving money from an extortion ring, enjoyed snorting cocaine and had once tried to get Pedro's wife into bed.

Charges filed by Brazil's Attorney-General drew a picture of a sophisticated swindle based on the president's influence and orchestrated by his former campaign treasurer, Paulo Cesar Farias. Mr Farias faces criminal charges for allegedly helping to funnel millions of dollars into his and Mr Collor's accounts. On sale in Brazil this Christmas are piggy banks with Mr Farias's features and carrying the inscription: 'Accepts any money, foreign or domestic, kickbacks or bribes.'

No one was surprised when the Attorney-General said he had been offered dollars 50m 'as a starter' by a confidant of Mr Collor if he did not file charges against the president. Mr Collor denies knowledge of that offer and denies the main charges against him, claiming he had no idea what Mr Farias was up to.

The indictment says Mr Collor received millions of dollars, fast cars and home improvements from influence peddling organised by Mr Farias using ghost companies and phantom accounts. The director of Mercedes-Benz's Brazilian subsidiary admitted the company had paid Mr Farias dollars 1.1m in 1990 after he had made them an offer they could not refuse: if Mercedes-Benz did not come up with the cash, it would run into red-tape problems with public agencies, went the message.

The Senate has already voted by an overwhelming 67 to 3 to indict Mr Collor. But he has been trying to delay matters in an effort to cash in on the growing unpopularity of his former vice-president and now acting president, Itamar Franco. Mr Franco, who admits he is 'very tired,' has alarmed the banks with his policy zig-zags. The Economy Minister, Enrique Krause, resigned last week, citing privately Mr Franco's unpredictability. Press reports say Mr Franco, 62, is lovestruck by the 34- year-old daughter of a Senator and wants only to marry her.

When the Collor scandal first broke, Brazilians said: 'Collor is a scoundrel but they can't get rid of him because Franco is a disaster.' But with today's vote postponed, and Mr Franco's woes set to continue, Mr Collor might even claw his way back.