Top Court Rules Brazil Can Jail Former Leader
Posted April 5, 2018 12:53 a.m. EDT
BOA VISTA, Brazil — Brazil’s top court ruled early Thursday that former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva can be sent to prison while he continues to appeal his corruption conviction — an explosive decision that upends the nation’s politics and appears to quash his bid to return to power.
There was more at stake than the legal fate of da Silva, 72, a towering and divisive figure in Brazilian politics who has a considerable lead in the polls for October’s presidential election.
The 6-5 ruling against the former president, who has called his prosecution an underhanded ploy to keep him off the ballot, is likely to call into question the legitimacy of the election in the eyes of many Brazilians.
“No matter how many roses the mighty kill, they will never manage to stop spring,” da Silva’s Workers’ Party said in a statement posted on Twitter after his fate became clear.
Chief Justice Cármen Lúcia Antunes Rocha cast the deciding vote after midnight, at the end of a marathon session.
The country is still deeply divided over the impeachment of da Silva’s chosen successor, Dilma Rousseff, who was removed from office in 2016 on charges of manipulating the federal budget to hide the nation’s growing economic problems.
Her ouster put an end to 13 years of governments led by the leftist Workers’ Party, a period when Brazil’s economy soared, millions of people entered the middle class and the country’s profile rose on the global stage.
But enormous corruption scandals and the worst economic crisis in decades left Rousseff and her party battered, with little support to fend off a power grab by their political rivals.
Da Silva, who is known commonly as Lula, has been trying to reclaim the presidency. But last July, he was convicted of corruption and money laundering, and sentenced to almost 10 years in prison. In January, an appeals court unanimously upheld the conviction and increased the sentence to 12 years.
Da Silva, who served as president from 2003 to 2011, appealed the sentence to the country’s top court, the Supreme Federal Court, asking to be allowed to remain free while additional appeals are pending — a process that could drag on for years.
That forced the justices to wrestle with a question with far-reaching implications for scores of other powerful figures ensnared in the large-scale corruption investigation known as Car Wash, including the current president, Michel Temer: At what point in the appeals process may a defendant be imprisoned?
On Thursday, the court gave its answer: It decided to maintain the status quo, which holds that defendants can be imprisoned after an appeals court upholds a verdict against them. With the ruling in hand, Sérgio Moro, the federal judge who presided over da Silva’s trial, is expected to issue an arrest warrant for the former president in a matter of days.
“Don’t think the fight will be easy,” da Silva told supporters at a rally in Rio de Janeiro on Monday. “It’s OK if we lose one round, but we cannot lose our willingness to fight.”
Prosecutors regard da Silva’s case as the highest-stakes prosecution in their long crackdown on corruption, an effort that enjoys widespread support among Brazilians.
If the court had allowed da Silva to remain free, it would have enraged the crusading prosecutors and judges who have tried since 2014 to stamp out Brazil’s entrenched culture of graft.
Thousands of the former president’s critics demonstrated Tuesday night, demanding that the justices uphold their 2016 ruling that allows trial judges to jail defendants after a first appeal has been rejected. More than 5,000 prosecutors and judges signed a petition supporting that position.
But da Silva still commands the loyalty of millions of Brazilians. His supporters contend that removing the country’s most popular presidential candidate from the ballot would be an affront to democracy. They say the case against him is nothing more than political persecution, and they vowed to take to the streets if the court ruled he could be imprisoned.
Before the ruling, Rocha called for calm in a rare televised speech.
“We are living in times of intolerance and intransigence,” she said. “The strengthening of Brazilian democracy depends on civic unity for the peaceful coexistence of everyone. Different opinions must be respected.”
Justice Roberto Barroso, who voted against da Silva, noted that the president left office with high approval ratings and an impressive set of accomplishments.
“We are not debating about a political legacy,” he said. “It is whether jurisprudence that the court settled must be applied to all people. It is a test of our democracy.”
The ruling does not technically disqualify da Silva’s candidacy. Instead, it preserved the legal status quo, which allows trial judges to seek arrest warrants for defendants convicted of white-collar crime once an appeals court has upheld the verdict.
A different body — the Supreme Electoral Tribunal — will review each candidate’s eligibility forms starting in mid-August. It is widely expected to reject da Silva’s bid for office under the “clean slate” law, which disqualifies anyone who has a criminal conviction that has been upheld by an appeals court.
Legal experts say that da Silva could try to fight the electoral court’s ruling if he remained free, but that his imprisonment makes that quest all but impossible.
“The Brazilian people have the right to vote for Lula, the candidate of hope,” da Silva’s party said in a statement issued early Thursday as it vowed to “defend this candidacy in the streets and in all spheres.” The statement added: “He who has the backing of the people, who has the truth on his side, knows that justice will ultimately prevail.”
Thousands of people on both sides of the issue had gathered in Brasília, the capital, for the court’s decision. Passions have been running high as da Silva’s candidacy has become increasingly embattled. Last week, the former president’s campaign buses were hit by gunshots as he campaigned in southern Brazil. No one was hurt.
Gen. Eduardo Villas Bôas, the chief of the army, raised tensions higher still with his posts on Twitter on Tuesday, declaring that the military “repudiates impunity.”
It was a rare venture into politics that was widely interpreted as saying that the Supreme Federal Court should rule against da Silva.
In a country that was ruled by the military from 1964 to 1985, critics reacted with alarm, calling the comment inappropriate pressure at best and, at worst, a veiled threat of military intervention if the former president prevailed in court.
Rodrigo Janot, a former attorney general, responded on Twitter: “This definitely isn’t good. If it is what it seems, another 1964 would be unacceptable,” he said, referring to the coup that ushered in Brazil’s military dictatorship.
But many others backed the army chief. His posts were shared more than 10,000 times and liked by more than 20,000 people in just three hours.
Many people, including other military leaders, posted messages with their support. “We’re in the trenches together!!! We think alike!!! Brazil above all!!!” wrote Gen. Antonio Miotto.
In da Silva’s trial, Moro found that the former president had accepted bribes — in the form of an oceanfront apartment — in return for steering contracts to a construction company.
The corruption allegations against da Silva are only a small part of the wide-ranging Car Wash corruption investigation.
The investigation, which began in 2014 with a seemingly routine inquiry into money-laundering accusations, has ensnared scores of powerful business executives and politicians across the political spectrum.
But da Silva’s case carries tremendous legal and political implications for the country.
In an editorial published in the Folha de S. Paulo newspaper Wednesday, Prosecutor General Raquel Dodge said that allowing defendants to remain free after repeated appeals had been rejected was an “exaggeration that annihilates the justice system because then justice is delayed, and for this, it fails.”
Jorge Oliveira, 50, a former army paratrooper, said he hoped that da Silva would be jailed soon and that his downfall would be the first step toward a drastic political transformation.
“The guy needs to be jailed,” Oliveira. “Then a general needs to take power, oust Temer, hold things together for three years and call for new elections.”
Jéssica da Silva Facundo, by contrast, said she had been rooting for da Silva, largely out of nostalgia for the prosperity Brazil experienced during his time in power.
“Despite the fact that he stole, during his government I was doing better,” said da Silva, who is not related to the former president.