Brazil’s Supreme Court on Thursday rejected former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s bid to delay a 12 year prison sentence for corruption in a ruling that could upend presidential elections in Latin America’s biggest country.
The 6-5 ruling means that Lula — who was Brazil’s most popular leader on record and is the frontrunner ahead of the October 7 polls — could be arrested within days.
The 11 judges deliberated for more than 10 hours from Wednesday into Thursday on Lula’s request to avoid going to prison while he mounts fresh appeals. At 5-5, it was court president Carmen Lucia who cast the tie-breaking vote, saying that postponing serving of sentences “could lead to impunity.”
Broadcast live on television, the drama left Brazilians as divided as the judges themselves, and raised questions over the state of the country’s democracy after the top army general appeared to urge prison for the 72-year-old founder of the leftist Workers’ Party.
On the right, Lula is considered the face of corruption sweeping the country’s political elite. His imprisonment has long been the goal of prosecutors running Brazil’s “Car Wash” anti-graft investigation and he is now their biggest scalp.
Leftists, however, remember Lula’s 2003-2010 rule as a time when Brazil used its wealth to lift tens of millions of people out of poverty.
For them, the entire corruption case is a sham cooked up by a judiciary giving major political figures accused of corruption on the right — including current President Michel Temer — an easier ride.
Those competing visions mirror the increasingly polarized election campaign in which a hard-right former army officer, Jair Bolsonaro, is currently second in the polls behind Lula, with centrists struggling to make ground.
Popular but divisive
Lula was sentenced to 12 years and one month prison after being convicted last year of accepting a seaside apartment as a bribe from a major construction company seeking government contracts. He appealed in a lower court but lost.
Under current law, that meant he should go immediately to prison, even while conducting further appeals in two higher courts. However, Lula applied to the Supreme Court for habeas corpus, allowing him to remain free during the appeals, potentially keeping him out of jail for a long period.
The Supreme Court’s deliberations on the sensitive case took place under extraordinary social and political pressure.
Late Tuesday, up to 20,000 people demonstrated in Brazil’s biggest city, Sao Paulo, to demand Lula go to prison and be barred from the election, with smaller rival rallies gathering in Brasilia on Wednesday.
More than 5,000 judges and prosecutors sent the Supreme Court a petition for Lula to be imprisoned immediately and justices have received thousands of emails on the subject.
At the same time, the court had to contend with the fact that Lula remains enormously popular with much of the population, especially in the poorer north-east.
In Sao Paulo, Lula backer Maria Lucia Minoto Silva, a 60-year-old history teacher, was distraught after Weber cast what proved the decisive vote on the court.
“This is a farce, it’s a huge blow. I can’t accept Lula out of the election. I can’t accept an innocent man being in prison,” she said. “Rosa Weber was on the fence and when she said she would rule against him, I went mad.”
The most notable pressure ahead of the court ruling came from Brazil’s army commander, who broke traditional non-interference in politics by appearing to call for Lula to be imprisoned.
General Eduardo Villas Boas tweeted late Tuesday that the military shared Brazilians’ “desire for the repudiation of impunity.”
Villas Boas also asked “who is really thinking about the good of the country and future generations and who is only worried about personal interests?”
The comments triggered immediate criticism, given that high-ranking generals have mostly kept out of politics since the restoration of democracy in 1985, following two decades of military dictatorship.
Amnesty International criticized the comments as a “threat to the democratic state of law.”
But Brazil’s defense minister argued Wednesday that Villas Boas was simply trying to reassure the nation.
“The message was that people can be calm, because the institutions are here. It was not a message about using force. It was the opposite,” said the minister, Joaquim Silva e Luna, in Globo newspaper.