Ex-president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, a fallen giant of leftwing politics and still frontrunner in Brazil’s October presidential elections, was deciding Friday whether to resist an order to surrender and start a 12-year prison sentence for corruption.
Holed up with a crowd of fervent supporters at the metalworkers’ union building in his hometown Sao Bernardo do Campo, near Sao Paulo, 72-year-old Lula had barely seven hours to comply with the order for voluntary surrender — or face forcible arrest.
The deadline was 5:00 pm (2000 GMT) Friday.
The leftist leader has not spoken in public since Thursday when Judge Sergio Moro, head of Brazil’s labyrinthine “Car Wash” anti-graft operation, issued his dramatic order, giving Lula just 24 hours to turn himself in to police in the southern city of Curitiba.
Moro said the cell, a separate room with its own toilet, had already been prepared.
Overnight Thursday, Lula’s lawyers filed a petition at the Supreme Court demanding that he be allowed to remain free, the high court spokesman told AFP.
The petition asked for Lula to be given time to make a purely technical appeal at a lower appeals court, something that would give him probably until Tuesday without fear of arrest.
The respected Folha newspaper said it reached Lula at the union building in Sao Bernardo and he told them he would refuse to comply with Moro’s order. There was no way to confirm the report.
For the hundreds of fervent members of Lula’s Workers’ Party gathering outside the building from Thursday into Friday morning, there was no doubt that defiance was the way forward.
“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.”
Adimir Jose da Silva, 57, a member of the roadworkers’ union, said “Lula must resist to the end. He won’t run, he will stay here and we won’t hand him over without a struggle.”
Da Silva vowed that “we’ll close the street and maybe we’ll have to confront the police. Why not?”
Election frontrunner, graft convict
Lula was convicted last year of receiving a seaside apartment as a bribe. He lost a lower court appeal in January.
That appeared to doom his dream of running in October’s election and seeking a third term in power.
Despite all his legal problems, he remains by far the highest polling of any candidate, with a hard-right former army captain, Jair Bolsonaro, in second place.
On Wednesday, Lula’s lawyers tried to convince the Supreme Court to let him remain at liberty while he pursued lengthy appeals in higher courts — and campaigned for election. But in a marathon session, the Supreme Court turned that petition down on Thursday, leaving Lula all but certain to go behind bars.
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 Moro’s sprawling “Car Wash” probe, which has revealed systemic, high-level embezzlement and bribery 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 between 2003 to 2011, he had some of the highest approval ratings of any leader in the world.
In theory, once someone has been convicted and lost a lower court appeal, he or she is 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 to 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.