Once wildly popular, Brazil's Lula is jailed for corruption

  • 7 Apr 2018

Leftist icon Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva spends Sunday as Brazil's first former president to be imprisoned for money laundering and corruption.

Former Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva leaves the metallurgic trade union in Sao Bernardo do Campo, Brazil on April 7, 2018 to turn himself in to the police to begin his 12-year prison sentence. ( Leonardo Benassatto / Reuters )

Former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva spent his first night in jail, a stunning fall from grace for a man who rose from nothing to lead Latin America's largest nation and later became engulfed in corruption allegations.

Foreshadowing possible clashes in the weeks to come, police shot rubber bullets and sprayed tear gas on Saturday at supporters waiting for da Silva as he landed in a police helicopter in the southern city of Curitiba, where he will serve his 12 year sentence for money laundering and corruption.

TRT World's Michael Fox has more.

Da Silva, who Brazilians simply call "Lula" was surrounded by hundreds of diehard supporters, including leaders of his Workers Party, union workers and activists, in the industrial suburb of Sao Paulo where his political career began as a union official. 

This was sometime after upset supporters attempted to block the former leader from presenting himself to police.

When he tried to leave to turn himself in, dozens blocked a gate where a car carrying Lula was trying to exit.

"Surround, surround (the building) and don't let them arrest him," chanted supporters. 

After a few minutes of tense words between guards and supporters, Lula got out of the car and entered the metal workers union where he had been holed up. It was unclear how he might turn himself into police, who have been wary to enter the metal workers union so as to avoid clashes.

Earlier in the day, Lula told thousands of supporters that he would turn himself in to police, but also maintained his innocence and argued his corruption conviction was simply a way for enemies to make sure he doesn't run — and possibly win — re-election in October.

The dramatic scenes on Saturday were the latest development in a whirlwind couple of days, which began when the Supreme Federal Tribunal, the country's top court, ruled against his petition on Thursday to remain free while he continued to appeal his conviction.

Judge Sergio Moro, who oversees many of the so-called "Car Wash" cases, then ordered an arrest warrant for Lula, giving him until 5 pm Friday to present himself to police in Curitiba, about  417 kilometres (260 miles) southwest of Sao Bernardo do Campo, and begin serving his 12-year sentence.

Lula did no such thing. 

Instead, he hunkered down with supporters in the same metallurgical union that was the spiritual birthplace of his improbable rise to power in one of the world's most unequal countries.

"The police and 'Car Wash' investigators lied. The prosecutors lied," Lula said, as a few thousand supporters cheered.

"I don't forgive them for giving society the idea that I am a thief," he continued.

Still, Lula said he would turn himself in "to go there and face them eye to eye. The more days they leave me (in jail), the more Lulas will be born in this country."

While Lula spoke, some people cried while others chanted "Free Lula!" When he finished speaking, a sea of supporters carried him on their shoulders back into the building.

Mauricio Santoro, a political science professor at the State University of Rio de Janeiro, said that by not complying with the order on Friday Lula "wanted to demonstrate strength and popularity, showing that he is a political leader capable of gathering a crowd in his support."

Choosing the metal workers union to take refuge, and not the Workers' Party headquarters, was also significant, said Santoro.

"It shows that he wants to emphasise his trajectory as leader of a social movement, rather than his role as leader of a party marked by allegations of corruption," he said.

Last year, Moro convicted Lula of trading favours 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 has always denied wrongdoing in that case and in several other corruption cases that have yet to be tried.

Who is Lula?

However it happens, the jailing of Lula will mark a colossal fall from grace for a man who rose to power against steep odds.

Born in the hardscrabble northeast, Lula rose through the ranks of the union in the country's industrial south. In 1980, during the military dictatorship, he was arrested in Sao Bernardo do Campo for organising strikes. He would spend more than a month in jail.

After running for president several times, in 2002 Lula finally won. He governed from 2003 to 2010, leaving office an international celebrity and with approval ratings in the high 80s.

Former US president Barack Obama once called Lula the "most popular politician on Earth."

Like so much in a nation that has become deeply polarised, that Lula would soon be behind bars was being interpreted differently by supporters and detractors.

"They are fostering hatred with this arrest," said Elena Quintella, a school teacher who cried as she held vigil at the union. "By arresting him the other side is saying they don't want to talk to the left."

It's time he goes to jail, said Edson Soares, a retiree at a shopping mall near the union building.

"This has always been Lula: a crook and a radical who doesn't respect the law," he said.

Still on the ballot

Workers' Party leaders insist that Lula, 72, will still be the party's candidate in October. Technically, being jailed does not keep him off the ballot.

In August, however, the country's top electoral court makes final decisions about candidacies. It is expected to deny Lula candidacy under Brazil's "clean slate" law, which disqualifies people who have had criminal convictions upheld. Lula could appeal such a decision, though doing so from jail would be more complicated.

The former leader 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 seen near weekly police operations and arrests of the elite, 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.