Brazil’s ex-President ‘Lula’ defies court, hunkers down
SAO BERNARDO DO CAMPO, Brazil (AP) — Former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva defied an order to turn himself in to police on Friday, instead hunkering down with supporters at a metallurgical union that was the spiritual birthplace of his rise to power.
The once wildly popular leader, who rose from poverty to lead Latin America’s largest nation, had until 5 p.m. local time to present himself to police in the city of Curitiba to begin serving a sentence of 12 years and one month for a corruption conviction.
Hours after the deadline, however, da Silva remained inside the union building in the Sao Paulo suburb of Sao Bernardo do Campo, about 260 miles (417 kilometers) northeast of Curitiba. Party leaders initially said he would speak in the late afternoon, but later said he would not.
Two sources close to da Silva told The Associated Press the former leader would not go to Curitiba, but instead was considering either waiting for police at the union or presenting himself in Sao Paulo on Saturday. They spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to share internal deliberations being discussed.
Forcing da Silva out of the union building on a Friday night would be a logistical nightmare given the thousands of supporters outside — clashes would be a possibility — and heavy Friday traffic in Sao Paulo.
“The intention is not to force compliance at any cost, but rather follow the order the best way possible, with tranquility and without a media show,” Luis Antonio Boudens, president of the federal police, said in a statement.
Sen. Roberto Requiao told reporters that da Silva planned to attend a commemoration Saturday morning for his late wife, to be held at the union.
Anna Julia Menezes Rodrigues, a specialist in criminal law at Braga Nascimento e Zilio, said da Silva’s defiance did not turn him into a fugitive. It just meant that it was now up to federal police to carry out the warrant, she said.
Federal judge Sergio Moro, seen by many in Brazil as a crusader against endemic graft, on Thursday gave da Silva 24 hours to present himself to authorities.
The arrest warrant came hours after Brazil’s top court, the Supreme Federal Tribunal, voted 6-5 to deny a request by the former president to stay out of prison while he appealed a conviction that he contends was simply a way to keep him off the ballot in October’s election. He is the front-running presidential candidate despite his conviction.
Last year, Moro convicted da Silva of trading favors with a construction company in exchange for the promise of a beachfront apartment. That conviction was upheld by an appeals court in January. The former president denies any wrongdoing in that case or in several other corruption cases that have yet to be tried.
Friday night, thousands listened to music and speeches outside the metallurgical union in Sao Bernardo do Campo where the ex-president universally known as “Lula” got his start as a union organizer.
However it happens, the jailing of da Silva will mark a colossal fall from grace for a man who rose to power against steep odds in one of the world’s most unequal countries.
Born in the hardscrabble northeast, da Silva rose through the ranks of the union in the country’s industrial south. In 1980, during the military dictatorship, da Silva was arrested in Sao Bernardo do Campo for organizing strikes. He would spend more than a month in jail.
After running for president several times, in 2002 da Silva finally won. He governed from 2003 to 2010, leaving office an international celebrity and with approval ratings in the high 80s.
Former U.S. President Barack Obama once called da Silva the “most popular politician on Earth.”
Since leaving office, things have steadily gotten worse for the leader, who has been charged in several corruption cases. He has always maintained his innocence while continuing to campaign across the country the past year. Despite his legal troubles, he leads preference polls to return to office — if by some chance he is allowed to run.
Like so much in a nation that has become deeply polarized, that da Silva would soon be behind bars was being interpreted differently by supporters and detractors.
“This has always been Lula: a crook and a radical who doesn’t respect the law,” said Edson Soares, a 70-year-old retiree at a shopping mall near the union building. “It will feel so much better to have him in prison.”
Antonio Ferreira dos Santos, a 43-year-old bricklayer who was keeping vigil outside the union, had a different take.
“Lula is one of us. He knows what it is like to have a tough life and loves the poor more than the rich,” said dos Santos.
Workers’ Party leaders insist that da Silva, 72, would still be the party’s candidate in October. Technically, beginning to serve his sentence would not keep da Silva off the ballot. In August, the country’s top electoral court makes final decisions about candidacies. It was expected to deny da Silva’s candidacy under Brazil’s “clean slate” law, which disqualifies people who have had criminal convictions upheld. However, da Silva could appeal such a decision, though doing so from jail would be more complicated.
Da Silva is the latest of many high-profile people to be ensnared in possibly the largest corruption scandal in Latin American history. Over the last four years, Brazilians have experienced near weekly police operations and arrests of the elite, from top politicians to businessmen like former Odebrecht CEO Marcelo Odebrecht.
Investigators uncovered a major scheme in which construction companies essentially formed a cartel that doled out inflated contracts from state oil company Petrobras, paying billions in kickbacks to politicians and businessmen.
While Moro, who oversees many cases in the so-Called “Operation Car Wash,” is hailed as a hero by many, others see him as a partisan hit man out to get da Silva and the Workers’ Party.
Peter Prengaman reported from Rio de Janeiro. Associated Press reporter Jill Langlois in Sao Paulo contributed to this report.
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