Brasília (AFP) – Brazil’s supreme court is to rule Wednesday on whether former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva should start a 12 year prison sentence for corruption, potentially upending this year’s presidential election.
The court showdown in the capital Brasilia is a key battle for Brazil’s deeply polarized electorate ahead of the October polls, in which Lula is currently the heavy favorite, despite his legal problems.
Late Tuesday, up to 20,000 people demonstrated in Brazil’s biggest city, Sao Paulo, to demand Lula go to prison and be barred from the election.
More protests — for and against Lula — were planned in Brasilia on Wednesday, with demonstrators separated by a metal barrier and heavy police presence.
The head of the army, General Eduardo Villas Boas, tweeted that the military shared Brazilians’ “desire for the repudiation of impunity.”
The comment, likely to be seen as backing prison for Lula, was a rare foray into politics by a general in a country that was under military dictatorship for two decades until 1985.
Villas Boas also asked “who is really thinking about the good of the country and future generations and who is only worried about personal interests?”
The court was due to start deliberations at 2:00 pm (1700 GMT), but with 11 justices casting votes, the session was likely to be lengthy.
Lula, 72, was sentenced to 12 years and one month prison after being convicted last year of accepting a seaside apartment as a bribe from a major construction company seeking government contracts. He appealed in a lower court but lost.
Under current law, that means he should go immediately to prison, even while conducting further appeals. However, Lula has asked the Supreme Court to grant him habeas corpus, allowing him to remain free while pursuing those appeals.
The court is believed to be evenly split on the issue, so that if only one judge changed position it would secure Lula’s temporary freedom — and boost his uphill bid for a third term in office.
If the court turns him down, he could face jail this week.
– Hot rhetoric –
Lula left office after two terms between 2003-2010 as Brazil’s most popular president on record, but he has since turned into a hugely divisive figure, inspiring adoration on the left and hatred on the right.
“We want Brazil to be freed of this shameful corruption. Imprison Lula and let Brazil turn the page,” said Mara Massa, 67, at the protest in Sao Paulo, where the crowd chanted “No more Lula!”
Lula portrays himself as framed by a right-wing judiciary bent on preventing him from returning to power.
He won cheers from a large crowd in Rio de Janeiro late Monday when he portrayed his legal struggle as continuation of his long fight against dictatorship as a young union leader, then founder of the Workers’ Party.
“I did not accept the military dictatorship and I will not accept this dictatorship of the prosecutors,” he said, insisting on his right to run for office.
Ahead of Villas Boas’ unusual comments, an army reservist general lashed out in Estadao newspaper that a Supreme Court ruling that freed Lula would “induce” violence and “fratricidal conflict.”
General Luiz Gonzaga Schroeder Lessa, who has a history of making provocative remarks, even appeared to threaten a coup, saying an eventual Lula election victory would “leave no recourse but an armed reaction. The armed forces would have to restore order.”
The top court is also under huge pressure from prosecutors like Deltan Dallagnol, who spearhead Brazil’s mammoth “Car Wash” anti-graft probe, which has netted scores of high-ranking politicians beyond Lula over the last four years.
On Monday, more than 5,000 judges and prosecutors signed a petition against granting Lula his habeas corpus request.
And on Wednesday, Prosecutor General Raquel Dodge said that allowing convicted criminals to stay free pending several appeals would “annihilate” the justice system.
However, one of the Supreme Court justices, Gilmar Mendes, tried to reassure the nation, saying the court’s ruling — whichever way it went — would lead to “a calming down, not an increase in conflict.”