São Bernardo do Campo (Brazil) (AFP) – Brazil’s ex-president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva was flown Saturday to a prison cell in Curitiba to start a 12-year sentence for corruption after a standoff with police that transfixed a divided country.
Lula, 72, left in a single-propeller plane from Sao Paulo airport toward Curitiba, where he was due to be incarcerated at federal police headquarters.
The leftist icon, who despite the scandal leads easily in polls ahead of October’s presidential election, only surrendered after a lengthy showdown with the authorities in his hometown Sao Bernardo do Campo, near Sao Paulo.
There were four straight days of at times surreal drama as Lula — president for two terms from 2003-2010 and once one of the world’s most popular politicians — tried to resist, both in the courts and streets.
Surrounded by thousands of supporters at the metalworkers’ union building in Sao Bernardo do Campo, Lula brazenly ignored an order to turn himself in by Friday.
Then Saturday, he agreed to turn himself in, but in chaotic scenes found himself blocked by his own supporters, with a crowd mobbing his car and shouting “Don’t surrender, stay here Lula!”
Finally, surrounded by bodyguards, Lula pushed through a seething throng of supporters on foot, then got into a police vehicle, which took him to police headquarters, where he transferred to a helicopter to reach the Sao Paulo airport.
– Fireworks and tears –
Curitiba, in the south of Brazil, is the base for the country’s gigantic “Car Wash” anti-corruption operation in which Lula is the biggest scalp so far.
A jail cell with special conditions by the standards of Brazil’s often violent, desperately overcrowded prisons — including a hot private shower and toilet — awaited him.
After his arrest, fireworks and cheering broke out in parts of Brasilia, Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo and other cities among those who long considered Lula responsible for the tide of graft sweeping over Brazilian politics.
Supporters cried openly at the exit of a man they remember for removing tens of millions of people from poverty and for connected with voters in a way few, if any, other modern Brazilian politicians have managed.
An outsized figure in recent Brazilian history and revered around the world among leftists, Lula managed to cross political divides while president and oversaw a booming economy.
With him almost certainly knocked out of the presidential election, the race is likely to be thrown wide open. In polls, Lula currently scores more than double his nearest rivals.
– Emotional farewell –
Lula was found guilty last year of taking a luxury apartment as a bribe from a construction company.
In an emotional hourlong speech earlier in Sao Bernardo do Campo, Lula called himself “an outraged citizen” over the graft conviction.
He said that Brazil’s top anti-corruption judge, Sergio Moro, “lied” about him being given the apartment by a big construction firm as a kickback.
“I am the only human being to be put on trial for an apartment that does not belong to me,” he said.
Lula accused the judiciary and Brazil’s most powerful media conglomerate of assisting a right-wing coup with the ultimate aim of preventing him from competing in the race.
“They don’t want me to take part,” he said. “Their obsession is to get a photo of Lula as a prisoner.”
But, crucially, Lula said he would drop his dramatic show of resistance and comply with the arrest warrant.
After the speech, Lula was lifted onto the shoulders of supporters who chanted, “I am Lula.”