São Bernardo do Campo (Brazil) (AFP) – Ex-president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, a fallen giant of emerging nation politics and still the frontrunner in Brazil’s October presidential elections, was given 24 hours to surrender to police and start a 12-year prison sentence for corruption by late Friday.
However, cheering supporters in the leftist veteran’s hometown Sao Bernardo do Campo urged him to resist arrest.
The boisterous crowd of about 2,000 Workers’ Party faithful stood outside the metal workers’ union building in the town near megacity Sao Paulo, with some vowing to shield him from police.
“We consider this imprisonment illegal,” said Workers’ Party Senator Lindbergh Farias. “Why would he turn himself in, given a situation like this? If they want to arrest him, to imprison him, let them come here.”
Lula, 72, waved from an upper window but by the early hours of Friday he had yet to speak publicly.
The defiant mood of protesters raised the prospect of a dramatic new turn in a legal battle apparently dooming the veteran leftist’s hopes of competing in October presidential elections, despite his strong lead in opinion polls.
“Lula must resist to the end. He won’t run, he will stay here and we won’t hand him over without a struggle,” said Adimir Jose da Silva, 57, a member of the road workers union. “We’ll close the street and maybe we’ll have to confront the police, why not?”
Farias said Lula would only decide whether to surrender in the morning.
Earlier, Judge Sergio Moro, head of Brazil’s huge “Car Wash” anti-graft probe, had ordered Lula to “present himself voluntarily” to police in the southern city of Curitiba, where the probe is based, by 5:00 pm (2000 GMT) Friday.
The order gave Lula just 24 hours to turn himself. It came as a surprise to defense lawyers who’d been expecting Lula to face prison only next week.
Moro 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.”
Lula, convicted last year of receiving a seaside apartment as a bribe, had tried to convince the Supreme Court on Wednesday to let him remain at liberty while he pursued lengthy appeals — and campaign for election.
In a marathon session, the high court turned that petition down Thursday, leaving Lula all but certain to go behind bars.
Removal of Lula from the presidential race would open up the field dramatically. Currently, hard-right former army officer Jair Bolsonaro, who openly praises Brazil’s 1964-1985 dictatorship, is in second place in opinion polls.
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 he would act on his lawyers’ advice, CBN reported.
– Anti-corruption crusade –
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.
But 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.
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.
Still, even in prison, Lula has the right to register as a candidate. It would then be up the Superior Electoral Tribunal to rule on whether his candidacy could stand.
Although Lula would be almost certainly blocked, he could use the process to maintain his political influence.