SAO BERNARDO DO CAMPO, Brazil (AP) — Former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva told thousands of supporters Saturday that he would turn himself in to police, but also maintained his innocence and argued his corruption conviction was simply a way for enemies to make sure he doesn’t run — and possibly win — re-election in October.
The public comments were da Silva’s first since the Supreme Federal Tribunal, the country’s top court, ruled against his petition Thursday to remain free while he continued to appeal his conviction. That ruling set in motion a series of events that would have been unimaginable just a few years ago.
Judge Sergio Moro, who oversees many of the so-called “Car Wash” cases, ordered an arrest warrant for da Silva, giving him until 5 p.m. Friday to present himself to police in Curitiba, about 260 miles (417 kilometers) southwest of Sao Bernardo do Campo, and begin serving his 12-year sentence.
Da Silva, who Brazilians simply call “Lula,” did no such thing. Instead, he hunkered down with supporters in the same metallurgical union that was the spiritual birthplace of his improbable rise to power in one of the world’s most unequal countries.
“The police and ‘Car Wash’ investigators lied. The prosecutors lied,” said da Silva, as a few thousand supporters cheered.
“I don’t forgive them for giving society the idea that I am a thief,” he continued.
Still, da Silva said he would turn himself in “to go there and face them eye to eye. The more days they leave me (in jail), the more Lulas will be born in this country.”
Da Silva did not say where or when he would turn himself in. Party leaders have suggested it would be later Saturday.
Police have made clear they do not want to take da Silva with force at the union, a confrontation that could turn violent.
“The intention is not to force compliance at any cost, but rather follow the order the best way possible, with tranquility and without a media show,” president of federal police Luis Antonio Boudens said in a statement late Friday.
While da Silva spoke, some people cried while others chanted “Free Lula!”
When he finished speaking, a sea of supporters carried him on their shoulders back into the building.
Mauricio Santoro, a political science professor at the State University of Rio de Janeiro, said that by not complying with the order on Friday da Silva “wanted to demonstrate strength and popularity, showing that he is a political leader capable of gathering a crowd in his support.”
Choosing the metal workers union to take refuge, and not the Workers’ Party headquarters, was also significant, said Santoro.
“It shows that he wants to emphasize his trajectory as leader of a social movement, rather than his role as leader of a party marked by allegations of corruption,” he said.
Last year, Moro convicted da Silva of trading favors with a construction company in exchange for the promise of a beachfront apartment. That conviction was upheld by an appeals court in January. The former president has always denied wrongdoing in that case and in several other corruption cases that have yet to be tried.
However it happens, the jailing of da Silva will mark a colossal fall from grace for a man who rose to power against steep odds.
Born in the hardscrabble northeast, da Silva rose through the ranks of the union in the country’s industrial south. In 1980, during the military dictatorship, he was arrested in Sao Bernardo do Campo for organizing strikes. He would spend more than a month in jail.
After running for president several times, in 2002 da Silva finally won. He governed from 2003 to 2010, leaving office an international celebrity and with approval ratings in the high 80s.
Former U.S. President Barack Obama once called da Silva the “most popular politician on Earth.”
Like so much in a nation that has become deeply polarized, that da Silva would soon be behind bars was being interpreted differently by supporters and detractors.
“They are fostering hatred with this arrest,” said Elena Quintella, a school teacher who cried as she held vigil at the union. “By arresting him the other side is saying they don’t want to talk to the left.”
It’s time he goes to jail, said Edson Soares, a retiree at a shopping mall near the union building.
“This has always been Lula: a crook and a radical who doesn’t respect the law,” he said.
Workers’ Party leaders insist that da Silva, 72, will still be the party’s candidate in October. Technically, being jailed does not keep him off the ballot.
In August, however, the country’s top electoral court makes final decisions about candidacies. It is expected to deny da Silva’s candidacy under Brazil’s “clean slate” law, which disqualifies people who have had criminal convictions upheld. Da Silva could appeal such a decision, though doing so from jail would be more complicated.
The former leader is the latest of many high-profile people to be ensnared in possibly the largest corruption scandal in Latin American history. Over the last four years, Brazilians have seen near weekly police operations and arrests of the elite, like former Odebrecht CEO Marcelo Odebrecht.
Investigators uncovered a major scheme in which construction companies essentially formed a cartel that doled out inflated contracts from state oil company Petrobras, paying billions in kickbacks to politicians and businessmen.
Peter Prengaman reported from Rio de Janeiro. Associated Press reporter Jill Langlois in Sao Paulo contributed to this report.
Mauricio Savarese on Twitter: twitter.com/MSavarese
Peter Prengaman on Twitter: twitter.com/peterprengaman