Former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, front runner in Brazil’s October presidential elections, was given 24 hours on Thursday to surrender to police and start a 12-year prison sentence for corruption. The timing of the order from Judge Sergio Moro, head of Brazil’s huge “Car Wash” anti-graft probe, took Lula’s lawyers by complete surprise. They had been expecting to use legal maneuvers to delay the start of prison at least until next week.
In his first public reaction, Lula, who was once among the planet’s most popular politicians, called the abrupt order “absurd”, CBN radio reported.
Lula, 72, easily leads polls in Brazil’s presidential race and his apparent downfall will throw the contest completely open. Currently, hard-right former army officer Jair Bolsonaro, who openly praises Brazil’s 1964-85 dictatorship, is in second place. But it will not be known until August how many are the presidential hopefuls.
Moro’s order said that in view of Lula’s stature as a former president, he would have “the opportunity to present himself voluntarily” to police in the city of Curitiba, where the “Car Wash” probe is based, by 5pm on Friday.
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,” Moro wrote.
Lula posted a video on Facebook of himself waving from a window to cheering supporters in the street. It was not clear if he would be making any public address.
At the metal workers union offices in Lula’s hometown Sao Bernardo do Campo, a suburb of Sao Paulo, Lula backers were furious. Reflecting leftists’ hostility to what they say is a right-leaning media in Brazil, some attacked journalists at the metal workers’ offices with eggs and ice cubes.
In the capital Brasilia, a car carrying journalists from Correio Braziliense had its windows broken in an attack by a mob outside a trade union headquarters, the newspaper said.
Senator Lindbergh Farias, from Lula’s Workers’ Party, called for supporters to flock to the embattled leader on Friday. “Moro ordered prison for Lula. Everyone to Sao Bernardo tomorrow from 5am in front of Lula’s house!” he tweeted.
Lula was convicted last year of receiving a seaside flat as a bribe from a construction company. A lower court appeal failed this January.
On Wednesday, Lula petitioned to the Supreme Court to be allowed to remain free while pursuing appeals in higher courts. But the Supreme Court judges ruled 6-5 in a marathon session that under the law, Lula must begin his sentence after having lost that first appeal.
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 failure to protect Lula 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.
Analysts say that his election hopes have now been dealt a body blow. But he is not necessarily knocked out even barred from running for office under Brazil’s clean slate law. But the issue will not be decided for months.
Lula has until mid-August to register his candidacy and only after that will the Superior Electoral Tribunal rule on whether his candidacy is valid. Even if he were barred, as seems likely, he would have an opportunity during that period to exercise influence on his followers, possibly preparing the way for a replacement candidate.