A Brazilian federal judge ruled on Friday that authorities must return the passport of former President Lula da Silva, seized last week on the order of another court after his conviction for corruption was upheld on appeal. Lawyers for Lula, who governed from 2003-2011, handed over the passport to Brazil’s Federal Police on Jan. 26.
Prosecutors convinced a judge in Brasilia to seize Lula’s passport to prevent him from traveling to Ethiopia, where he was due to speak at a conference of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. The prosecution argued that there was a possibility the former president might choose not to return to Brazil, where he faces the possibility of going to a prison if his judicial appeals don’t succeed.
But Judge Bruno Apolinario concluded Friday that the confiscation of the passport had been unfounded, as there was no reason to conclude that Lula would seek to evade justice.
Lula’s plan to travel to Addis Ababa “was justified by a previously set professional commitment” and the trip would not have interfered with court proceedings in Brazil, the judge said.
On Jan. 24, an appellate panel upheld the former president’s conviction for bribe-taking and money laundering and increased his sentence from nine years to 12.
The case against Lula de Silva, who denies any wrongdoing, is based largely on plea-bargained testimony from people already convicted as part of the sprawling investigation of a US$ 2 billion corruption scandal at state oil company Petrobras.
Lula can pursue additional appeals, but he and his supporters fear that authorities might seek to jail him immediately in a bid to derail his 2018 presidential candidacy. Despite his precarious legal situation, the center-left Workers Party he helped found has affirmed that Lula will be its standard-bearer in this year’s contest.
At 72, Lula remains Brazil’s most popular politician and is leading in the polls with 37% support but his negative image is closer to 53%.