As Jail Looms for Brazil’s da Silva, His Party Vows to Fight

The head of Brazil’s Workers’ Party on Thursday warned that jailing former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva would turn Latin America’s largest nation into a “banana republic,” while the former leader’s lawyers said they were filing injunctions in hopes of keeping him out of prison. 

The comments came just hours after the Supreme Federal Tribunal, by a 6-5 vote, denied a petition by da Silva to stave off a 12-year sentence while he appeals a corruption conviction that he and supporters say is a ploy to keep him off October’s presidential ballot. Despite the conviction and several other charges against him, da Silva leads preference polls ahead of the election

Late Thursday, Judge Sergio Moro ordered da Silva turn himself in to police by late Friday afternoon to begin serving a 12-year sentence for a corruption conviction, according to a court document.

“We consider this to be a political imprisonment, an imprisonment that will expose Brazil before the world,” said Gleisi Hoffmann, chairwoman of the Workers’ Party, after Thursday’s earlier ruling. “We will become a banana republic.” 

Hoffmann also insisted that da Silva, 72, would be the party’s candidate in October. Da Silva, who Brazilians simply call “Lula,” has not spoken since the ruling. 

Like so much in a nation that has become deeply polarized, the reality that the once wildly popular leader would be jailed was being interpreted differently by supporters and detractors. 

“Brazil scored a goal against impunity and corruption,” said Congressman Jair Bolsonaro, a right-leaning former army captain who is second in the polls after da Silva.

Mariana Setra, a da Silva supporter in Sao Paulo, called the top court’s decision “ridiculous.”

“It was applied to only one person,” she said. “As if Lula were the only thief in this country.”

Da Silva, president between 2003 and 2010, 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 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.  

The list of targets of the so-called “Operation Car Wash” investigation includes President Michel Temer, who took power in 2016 after da Silva’s successor and protege, Dilma Rousseff, was impeached and ousted from office. 

Last year, Temer was twice charged with corruption but remained in office because in both cases Congress, which must vote on criminal cases involving a sitting president, decided to spare him prosecution. Many members of Congress have been charged with corruption or are being investigated. 

Da Silva was convicted in July of helping a construction company get sweetheart contracts in exchange for the promise of a beachfront apartment. He denies any wrongdoing in that case or in several other corruption cases that have yet to be tried.

An appeals court upheld the conviction in January, and the three reviewing magistrates even lengthened the sentence to 12 years and one month.

Technically, the Supreme Federal Tribunal’s decision doesn’t 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. 

Sen. Lindbergh Farias from the Workers’ Party said vigils would be organized nationwide beginning on Friday. 

“People want to be close to President Lula after this injustice,” he said. 

Whether the Workers’ Party will be able to mobilize major demonstrations remains to be seen. During the impeachment trials against Rousseff in 2016, many demonstrations were small despite calls by major unions to take to the streets.

Reuters contributed to this report