PORTO ALEGRE, Brazil – An appellate court on Wednesday delivered a significant blow to Brazil’s ex-President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, unanimously upholding a graft conviction against him and even adding years to his prison sentence in a major decision that could keep the former leader from running for a third term despite holding a lead in the polls.
The ruling was the latest legal setback for da Silva, who was wildly popular as president between 2003 and 2010 but has since been dogged by several corruption allegations amid a mushrooming graft scandal that has taken down top politicians and businessmen in Latin America’s largest nation.
While da Silva has several avenues to still get on the ballot for October’s election – and his lawyers have indicated they will appeal any setback – the decision further complicates a political comeback. Many argue that sidelining him could anger millions of his supporters and impact the country’s political stability.
After hearing arguments in the morning from the prosecution and defense, Judge Joao Pedro Gebran Neto was the first to vote. He went beyond the original conviction, saying that jail time should be 12 years and one month, an increase of more than two years from the sentence leveled in July.
“I consider the culpability in the case extremely high,” said Gebran Neto. “This is about a former president and a corruption scheme that prevailed for years.”
The following two judges agreed on all counts.
“Nobody can be absolved just because he’s powerful,” said Judge Leandro Paulen, referring to da Silva’s large following.
“The evidence has stood up to criticism, confrontation and counterpoint,” said Judge Victor dos Santos Laus, adding: “The accusation is proven.”
Despite myriad legal troubles – beyond this conviction da Silva is facing charges in six other cases – the 72-year-old leads preference polls for October’s race.
With tensions high, authorities closed streets around the court in the southern city of Porto Alegre on Wednesday as the case opened. Helicopters hovered above, police patrolled on horses and sharpshooters were positioned on rooftops.
The case was so closely watched that in the afternoon Brazil took over much of Twitter: Three of the top 10 topics trending worldwide were about the case.
The top trending topic was the hashtag “MoluscoNaCadeia,” or “MolluskInJail.” That was a play on the fact that da Silva is universally known as “Lula,” which is a common nickname for Luiz but also means squid in Portuguese.
In this deeply polarized, continent-sized nation, the case is part of a larger narrative, with supporters and detractors of da Silva offering their own interpretations. Da Silva and his supporters say it and the other corruption cases are an attempt to keep him from returning to office. They argue it’s part of a conspiracy: The nation’s elite do not want a president who would focus on the poor and equal the playing field in one of the world’s most unequal nations.
Detractors note that da Silva and his left-leaning Workers’ Party were running the country while a massive corruption scheme siphoned billions from state oil company Petrobras and helped Latin America’s largest economy fall into its worst recession in decades.
“I supported Lula long ago, but he became one of the crooks,” said Diego Esteves, a university student in Porto Alegre.
Over the last several years, the so-called “Car Wash” corruption probe has landed dozens of the nation’s elite, from businessmen to politicians, in jail. Several construction companies formed a de facto cartel, which decided who would get inflated contracts that included billions of dollars in bribes in kickbacks to politicians, company officials and parties in the form of campaign contributions.
The judges on Wednesday were reviewing a case involving a beachfront apartment in Guaruja, a city in the state of Sao Paulo. Prosecutors argued that da Silva was promised the apartment, owned by construction company OAS, in exchange for contracts. In plea bargain testimony, the company’s CEO said the apartment was slated for da Silva.
“Numerous tax notes, testimony and messages between executives indicated the apartment was being prepared for the former president,” said prosecutor Mauricio Gotardo Gerum.
Da Silva and his lawyers have always argued the case defies logic, as the former president universally known as “Lula” never owned the apartment.
“It’s clear from the records that (da Silva) never received the keys or spent a single day or night” at the property, said lawyer Cristiano Zanin.
Luis Henrique Machado, a criminal lawyer not associated with the case, said that higher courts may take issue with much of the evidence because it doesn’t prove that the apartment ever belonged to da Silva.
“There is still a lot to come” in this case, said Machado.
In July, Judge Sergio Moro sentenced da Silva to 9 1/2 years in prison. Moro has been the presiding judge in many of the major “Car Wash” cases and his convictions have rarely been overturned.
Many Brazilians see Moro as a hero fighting endemic corruption, while others see him as deeply partisan and intent on keeping the left from returning to power.
Speaking from his home city of Sao Bernardo do Campo before the vote, the former union leader said he was “absolutely certain” that he did not commit a crime. On Tuesday, he told supporters that only death would keep him from returning to politics.
On Wednesday, thousands of da Silva supporters and a smaller number of detractors descended on Porto Alegre.
By law, a criminal conviction that has been upheld on appeal makes a candidate ineligible to run for office. However, da Silva can appeal the conviction to higher courts. Ultimately, the country’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal makes decisions about candidacies, and the ballot won’t be set until August.
“This is not a simple trial. This is us against them,” said school teacher Claudio Thomas, who likened the atmosphere to a soccer competition, adding: “The championship does not end here.”
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