Brazilians Organize National Marches Demanding Presidential Frontrunner Go to Jail

Tensions run high ahead of Brazil court's ruling on Lula prison

Protesters in Brazil have organized street manifestations on Tuesday in anticipation of a final appellate decision on whether former president—and current presidential frontrunner—Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva will have to begin to serve his 12-year prison sentence immediately, effectively cutting off his presidential campaign.

Lula, as he is referred to in Brazil, ran Brazil as a socialist Workers’ Party (PT) president from 2003 t0 2011, during which dozens of politicians from a variety of Brazilian political parties have been convicted in participating in a corruption scheme known as “Operation Car Wash.” For years, the Brazilian state oil company Petrobras would award largely overpriced contracts to friendly firms, notably the disgraced firm Odebrecht, in exchange for a cut of the surplus state funding the firm would receive.

Lula was convicted of taking over one million in such bribes, using some of the funds to buy a luxury beach house. He was initially sentenced to nine years in prison for the crime, but an appellate court raised the sentence to 12 years rather than overturning it.

The groups Vem Pra Rua (“Come to the Street”) and the Free Brazil Movement (MBL) have organized protests for Tuesday to demand that the Supreme Federal Tribunal (STF), the nation’s court of last resort, reject Lula’s final habeas corpus petition. The group have called the march “Either You Go, or He Returns,” suggesting that, without major popular opposition, the Brazilian government would find a way to lodge Lula in the presidency once again.

The Vem Pra Rua group told Brazil’s UOL outlet that their protest is necessary because “the Brazilian people want an end to impunity and keeping those in prison convicted after an appeal—one of the tools found by the Operation Car Wash [prosecutors] to combat impunity in the theft of $6 billion by corrupt politicians in the Petrobras case.”

The groups told Correio Braziliense that they have organized protests in 100 cities and four countries against Lula, including most of Brazil’s largest cities and Boston; Santiago, Chile; London, and Rome.

The MBL movement used images of Martin Luther King, Jr., to promote the protests on social media. “What worries me is not the shouts of the evil ones, but the silence of the good,” one quote reads.

“Today is the day to put fear in corrupt politicians,” another poster read. “Or you go, or he returns.”

Some of the posters also seek to raise awareness of Lula’s corruption generally. A February poll found that one in four Brazilians did not know that their former president had been convicted and sentenced to a decade in prison over corruption and money laundering.

The text accompanying the photo of Lula reads, “This man was sentenced to 12 years and one month in prison for corruption and money laundering; robbed you, your family, and your friends to keep a criminal operation in power; wants to return to the presidency and has already promised to censor the press and arrest journalists; and still wants to get out of jail and take other politicians with him. Will you let him or will you come to the streets?”

If the habeas petition is accepted, it could keep Lula out of jail and on the campaign trail. The nation’s “Clean Slate” law, which prevents individuals convicted of corruption crimes from holding public office, would still keep him from resuming the presidency, however, unless supportive lawmakers overturn it before the election in November or the STF finds the law unconstitutional. There is not currently a case on the law before the STF.

Those against his release fear that the STF may set a precedent used by the dozens of other politicians arrested on Petrobras corruption charges, creating a trail of impunity and institutionalizing the corrupt kickback system.

Leftist groups have also organized a protest for Wednesday, the day that Lula will hear whether he will have to begin his prison sentence immediately. Brazil has been host to dozens of mass protests, both in favor and against the socialists, since 2016, when PT President Dilma Rousseff was impeached out of office. Rousseff was impeached on grounds that she had altered Brazil’s financial records to appeal to international investors, not any accusations involving Operation Car Wash, though she served as Lula’s Minister of Energy while Petrobras was awarding the illegal contracts in question.

Protests against Rousseff in 2016 attracted 3.6 million people in one day at their peak and prominently featured caricatures of Lula da Silva. An inflatable doll of Lula wearing a traditional prison uniform, known as a “pixuleco,” became an icon of the protests, and can still be purchased today for little over $6.


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