The court decided in a 6-5 vote that a person can be imprisoned only after all appeals to higher courts have been exhausted. It's a ruling that can work in favour of the former president.
Brazil's Supreme Court on Thursday reached a narrow decision that could release almost 5,000 inmates who are still appealing their convictions, including jailed former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
The court decided in a 6-5 vote that a person can be imprisoned only after all appeals to higher courts have been exhausted. The tie-breaking vote was cast by Chief Justice José Dias Toffoli.
The decision appears to cover Da Silva and others convicted in cases arising from the sprawling "Car Wash" corruption investigation, which has ensnared dozens of top politicians and business leaders in Latin America's biggest nation.
The Supreme Court's debate began in mid-October and its result could throw Brazil's political landscape into uncertainty. Da Silva had been favoured to win the 2018 presidential election, but his conviction prohibited him from running. He remains a popular figure on the left, whose politicians and voters have ceaselessly called for his release and celebrated Thursday's ruling.
The former president's attorneys said in a statement they will request his release on Friday. That move initially depends on a judge based in the southern city of Curitiba, where he is jailed.
Prosecutors from the Car Wash probe said in a statement that the decision "goes against the sentiment of repudiating impunity and the fight against corruption."
Key change for Brazil's top court
Many of powerful Brazilians imprisoned in the investigation will be able to seek release under the ruling.
The decision marks a key change for Brazil's top court, which in February 2016 accepted that defendants who have a conviction upheld may be jailed even if their other appeals are pending decision. Brazil's constitution states that no one can be considered guilty until due process is concluded.
The court confirmed that verdict in three other occasions, and as recently as April.
Justice Gilmar Mendes, who voted for the release of inmates who have yet to conclude their appeals process, said da Silva's case "contaminated" debate on the case.
"That was not good at all for rational debate," said Mendes, an open critic of the Car Wash probe, during the full court session.
Lula, as he is universally known among Brazilians, was jailed in April 2018 after a group of judges upheld his conviction for corruption and money laundering. His first conviction was issued by Sergio Moro, then a judge on a low court and later named justice minister by President Jair Bolsonaro.
Da Silva, who governed from 2003 to 2010, is still appealing a case related to the alleged purchase of a beachfront apartment in the city of Guarujá, in the state of Sao Paulo, in Brazil's two high courts. He was also sentenced by a low court judge in a case regarding alleged ownership of a farmhouse in the city of Atibaia, outside Sao Paulo.
The 74-year-old politician has denied any wrongdoing in those cases. He accuses Moro and Car Wash prosecutors of political persecution.
4,895 prisoners stand to benefit
Left-leaning supporters have celebrated the decision that could spring their standard-bearer, but want more. They hope Da Silva's sentence is annulled later in November in another Supreme Court debate over whether Moro was unbiased when he delivered his rulings.
Right-leaning protesters have used social media in recent weeks to attack justices who cast votes that could allow Da Silva to walk out of prison. A protest previously scheduled for this weekend is aimed to show support for Moro and his crusade to root out corruption.
In addition to Da Silva, Brazil's justice council estimates at least 4,895 prisoners stand to benefit from the decision.
Most analysts say the decision will not benefit violent criminals such as rapists and killers. Justice Alexandre de Moraes said those convicts will remain behind bars, because judges already issued preventive detentions in their cases, meaning a sentence is not required to jail them.
Brazil's national association of public prosecutors, though, insists the release of dangerous criminals is a possibility after Thursday's decision.
"I ask God for there to be peace on the streets and protection of our democracy," Antônio Costa, head of nonprofit organisation Rio de Paz, wrote on Twitter.