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Bizarre Brazilian law helps US gold medalist avoid prosecution

The law allowing Jimmy Feigen to give a $10k donation and avoid being prosecuted for lying about being robbed in Rio alongside Ryan Lochte, is just one piece of Brazilian legislation that raises eyebrows.

by Alan Hernandez
Aug 19 2016, 7:25pm

Photo by Matt Slocum, File/AP Photos

US Olympic gold medalist Jimmy Feigen has made a deal with the Brazilian authorities in which he can avoid prosecution over lying about being robbed in Rio de Janeiro by giving a substantial donation to charity.

"This is perfectly normal," said Rio-based criminal lawyer Renato Neves Tonini.

The promised donation comes amid a wave of Brazilian anger unleashed by the revelation that swimming star Ryan Lochte's invented story that he, Feigen, and teammates Gunnar Bentz and Jack Conger were robbed at gunpoint last weekend.

The law allowing the deal was introduced in the mid-1990s within a broader effort to make the country's judicial system less punitive.

Neves said that the judge is required to take the suspect's wealth into account when deciding how much the donation should be. He said those who don't have enough money for such deals can also avoid prosecution with community service.

In this particular case Feigen has reportedly agreed to pay 35,000 reals (about $10,800) which will be given to a charity that teaches Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and Judo to kids in the favelas. Lochte, who had already left Brazil by the time the scandal broke, could potentially make a similar deal. Bentz and Conger are unlikely to need to as neither of them gave formal statements about the robbery to the authorities.

Neves said that the same spirit seen in the law giving suspects the chance to donate their way out of criminal cases, can be seen in more recent legislation, is on display in 2012 legislation that allows people convicted of non-violent crimes to knock four days off their sentence for every book they read behind bars. The law puts a limit of 48 condoned days every year — that's one book per month.

A special program implemented in the state prison of Santa Rita do Sapucaí in the state of Minas Gerais in 2012, gives prisoners convicted of more serious crimes, such as drug trafficking and attempted murder, a different option for getting out of jail early. They can cut one day off their sentences for every 16 hours they spend pedaling special bicycles that generate electricity to light the city's riverside promenade.

Related: The Rio Olympics want you to forget that Brazil is in turmoil

Such progressive laws make little real difference to most of Brazil's inmates stuck in dramatically overcrowded, violent, and squalid prisons run by inside mafias. A riot sparked by gang rivalry inside a prison in the coastal state of Pernambuco last month left six inmates dead and 11 wounded.

They also contrast with the persistence of old laws that highlight deeply entrenched class divisions, such as the right given to graduates in pre-trial detention to be housed away from the general prison population.

"It means they can be with other degreed people and stay away from the most dangerous criminals," Neves said. "It's a very old law. Probably from the 1940s."

Beneficiaries of the rule include Michael Lynn, an Irish lawyer who made millions from allegedly dubious property deals before he skipped the country in 2007. Arrested in Brazil in 2013, Lynn has since been housed in a special block for graduates in the notorious Cotel prison in the Atlantic city of Recife while he fights extradition.

Lawyer Neves, however, said that there is no hint of privilege in the treatment of the US swimming team, including the donation deal, the retention of passports, and Tuesday police operation requiring Bentz and Conger to get off a plane.

"This is a very small crime in Brazil that requires a small and simple fine. Taking those swimmers off the plane, the whole thing is disproportional," he said. "I think the judge did a very ridiculous thing."

Related: Rio's authorities doubt US gold medalists were robbed

Follow Alan Hernández on Twitter: @alanpasten

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