Former Brazil president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. PHOTO: AFP/ NELSON ALMEIDA
Brazil’s election frontrunner and controversial leftist icon Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva was negotiating the terms of his arrest for corruption Saturday while remaining holed up with crowds of fervent supporters near Sao Paulo.
Lula, a two-time former president who is hated and loved in Brazil by equal measure, had been told to surrender on Friday to start serving a 12 year prison term.
But the 72-year-old defiantly let the deadline pass, taking refuge in the metalworkers’ union building in his hometown of Sao Bernardo do Campo, surrounded by several thousand supporters.
This raised the temperature in the standoff between Lula and Judge Sergio Moro, who heads Brazil’s mammoth “Car Wash” anti-graft probe and who ordered the arrest.
Nevertheless, both sides backed away from outright confrontation, given that taking Lula by force would certainly provoke violent resistance from his backers.
Authorities took pains to reduce tensions, stressing that Lula was not considered a fugitive — something that would trigger a preventative arrest warrant.
“Lula did not comply with a judicial order,” a spokesman for Moro told AFP, “but everyone knows where he is. He’s not hiding or on the run.”
Politicians from Lula’s Workers’ Party said his lawyers were negotiating.
“There is a discussion between police and the ex-president’s lawyers and the party is following this. The idea is to avoid the judge ordering preventative arrest, which would aggravate the situation,” said Congressman Carlos Zarattini.
“Nothing is over yet.”
A Catholic Mass was due to take place at the union building early Saturday in memory of Lula’s late wife Marisa Leticia, who died last year and would now be turning 68, Workers’ Party officials said.
According to varying Brazilian media reports, Lula was considering surrendering after the Mass or possibly trying to hold out through the weekend.
Meanwhile, Lula’s lawyers appealed for an injunction against his arrest late Friday in the Supreme Court. A similar appeal at another court failed earlier in the day.
– Lion of the left –
Lula was convicted last year of taking a luxury apartment as a kickback from a big construction company. He lost a lower court appeal in January and saw his sentence increased from nine to 12 years.
To his Workers’ Party faithful, Lula is a victim of an out-of-control judiciary preventing him from returning to power.
They remember him for a 2003-2010 presidency that saw tens of millions lifted from poverty and Brazil rise on the world stage.
“Lula is innocent, Lula for president!” supporters chanted outside the union building.
Renata Swiecik, an unemployed mother of four who had joined the crowd, urged Lula not to hand himself over.
“We are here to resist to the end. Lula will not be a prisoner in 2018, he’ll be president and help the people once more,” said Swiecik, 31.
Face of graft
However, Lula’s imminent arrest is being celebrated by many Brazilians.
The “Car Wash” probe, which has revealed systemic, high-level embezzlement and bribery throughout business and politics over the last four years, is wildly popular.
Detractors say that Lula epitomizes Brazil’s corruption-riddled elite and his conviction is the biggest “Car Wash” scalp by far.
“I want Lula in prison, I want a better future and with him in the leadership we won’t have that,” said Maura Moraes de Oliveira, 51, who works as a maid in Curitiba.
“Not only Lula should be locked up, but all the corrupt, a complete cleaning.”
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.
Lula, who grew up poor and with little formal education before becoming a trade union leader and politician, has long said he will go down fighting.
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 almost certainly be blocked, he could use the process to maintain his political influence.