Brazil’s Lula ordered to prison within hours

Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who is ahead in the polls as he seeks a third term as Brazil's president, suffered a blow as the Supreme Court refused to delay a prison sentence for corruption

Sao Paulo (AFP) – Former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, frontrunner in Brazil’s October presidential elections, was given 24 hours Thursday to surrender to police and start a 12-year prison sentence for corruption.

The timing of the order from Judge Sergio Moro, head of Brazil’s huge “Car Wash” anti-graft probe, took Lula’s lawyers by complete surprise. They had been expecting to delay the start of prison at least until next week.

Moro said Lula, who lives near megacity Sao Paulo, must “present himself voluntarily” to police in the southern city of Curitiba, where the “Car Wash” probe is based, by 5:00 pm (2000 GMT) Friday.

The drama is of huge consequence to Brazil’s presidential race, in which 72-year-old Lula, despite his legal problems, is the easy leader in polls. Currently, hard-right former army officer Jair Bolsonaro, who openly praises Brazil’s 1964-1985 dictatorship, is in second place.

In his first public reaction, Lula, who was once among the planet’s most popular politicians, called the abruptly announced order “absurd,” CBN radio reported.

Asked if he would comply, the veteran leftist leader, who ruled from 2003-2011 and is seeking a third term in October, said only that he would act on his lawyers’ advice, CBN reported.

At a late night gathering Thursday with his Workers’ Party leadership in a metal workers’ union building in Sao Bernardo do Campo, near Sao Paulo, Lula waved to a crowd of supporters from a window, video posted on his Facebook page showed.

The head of the union, Wagner Santana, said on a sound system that Lula “will not hand himself over,” G1 news site reported.

And Workers’ Party Senator Lindbergh Farias called for activists to stand by the embattled leader on Friday. “Moro ordered prison for Lula. Everyone to Sao Bernardo tomorrow from 5:00 am in front of Lula’s house!” he tweeted.

Moro’s order said that in view of Lula’s importance, a special cell “was prepared in advance… in which the ex-president will be separated from other prisoners, with no risk for his moral or physical integrity.”

– Court ruling –

Lula was convicted last year of receiving a seaside apartment as a bribe from a construction company. A lower court appeal against the conviction was rejected this January.

On Wednesday, Lula petitioned to the Supreme Court to be allowed to remain free while pursuing appeals in higher courts. But the Supreme Court judges ruled 6-5 in a marathon session that under the law, Lula must begin his sentence after having lost that first appeal.

Brazil’s left sees Lula’s imminent imprisonment as a plot to prevent the Workers’ Party from returning to power. Party leader Gleisi Hoffmann said the Supreme Court’s denial of Lula’s petition violated “constitutional law and the presumption of innocence” and made Brazil “look like a little banana republic.”

However, there were celebrations on the right and among prosecutors supporting the epic “Car Wash” probe, which has revealed high-level corruption throughout Brazilian business and politics over the last four years.

To them, Lula epitomizes Brazil’s corruption-riddled elite. His conviction is “Car Wash’s” biggest scalp by far.

Operation “Car Wash” was named after the service station where agents initially investigated a minor money laundering scheme in 2014, before realizing that they’d stumbled on a gargantuan web of embezzlement and bribery at state oil company Petrobras and right through the political classes. 

– Campaign from behind bars? –

Lula, who grew up poor and with little formal education before becoming a trade union leader and politician, says he will go down fighting. When he left office after serving two terms in 2011, he had some of the highest approval ratings of any leader in the world.

Analysts say that his election hopes have now been dealt a body blow. But he is not necessarily knocked out.

In theory, once someone has been convicted and lost their lower court appeal, they are barred from running for office under Brazil’s clean slate law. But the issue will not be decided for months.

Lula has until mid-August to register his candidacy and only after that will the Superior Electoral Tribunal rule on whether his candidacy is valid.

Even if he were barred, as seems likely, he would have an opportunity during that period to exercise influence on his followers, possibly preparing the way for a replacement candidate.

In the latest election polling, Lula scored more than 30 percent, with his nearest rivals in a crowded field, including Bolsonaro, getting only around half that.