World News

Tensions High as Brazil’s Supreme Court Debates Ex-Leader’s Fate

Posted April 4, 2018 11:26 p.m. EDT
Updated April 4, 2018 11:29 p.m. EDT

SÃO PAULO — Brazil’s highest court deliberated long into the night Wednesday to decide an explosive case that will determine whether former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, a towering political figure and a front-runner in this fall’s presidential election, should be sent to prison while he appeals his corruption conviction.

After Justice Rosa Weber, the only member of the court who had not clearly signaled how she intended to rule, decided against da Silva, supporters of the former president appeared resigned to defeat.

“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 Wednesday night on Twitter.

Legal experts expected the court would rule 6-5 against da Silva. Approaching midnight, only Chief Justice Cármen Lúcia Antunes Rocha had yet to announce her decision, which would be the deciding vote. Rocha was widely expected to rule against da Silva.

The decision had the potential not only to quash the political ambitions of da Silva, who is leading in the polls for the October vote but also to reshape Brazil’s justice system in the middle of a long-running bribery and money-laundering investigation.

Justice Roberto Barroso, who voted against da Silva’s plea to remain free, noted that the president had 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 court’s deliberations went on for hours and stretched into the evening with the outcome uncertain.

Ratcheting up tensions, the commander of Brazil’s army, Gen. Eduardo Villas Bôas, made a rare incursion into politics Tuesday night, saying that the armed forces “repudiated impunity.”

In two posts on Twitter, he declared that the army was “heedful of its institutional missions” and that the military “repudiates impunity, respects the Constitution, social peace and democracy.” The messages were retweeted more than 10,000 times and liked by more than 20,000 in just three hours.

The remarks set off accusations that Brazil’s military, which has been largely silent on political debates since democracy was restored in 1985 after a two-decade military dictatorship, was signaling how it wanted the country’s top court to rule on an enormously polarizing issue.

Critics viewed the comments as undue pressure or even a veiled threat of military intervention if the Supreme Court were to allow da Silva to avoid imprisonment, even temporarily, and continue his bid for a third term in office.

But many, including other military leaders, tweeted their support for Bôas. “We’re in the trenches together!!! We think alike!!! Brazil above all!!!” wrote Gen. Antonio Miotto.

Da Silva was found guilty last year of taking bribes, in the form of an oceanfront apartment, in return for steering contracts to a construction company. An appeals court upheld the verdict in January.

The Supreme Court ruling will not technically determine da Silva’s eligibility to run for a third term.

The Supreme Electoral Tribunal, which will review candidate eligibility forms starting in mid-August, is widely expected to reject da Silva’s bid under the “clean slate” law, which disqualifies anyone who has a criminal conviction that has been upheld by an appeals court.

Legal experts say da Silva could try to fight the electoral court’s ruling if he were to remain free, but his imprisonment would make that quest all but impossible. His supporters say the case against him is nothing more than political persecution and have vowed to take to the streets if the court rules he can be sent to jail while he fights to overturn his conviction.

Passions flared in the days leading up to the Supreme Court session. Thousands of da Silva’s critics demonstrated Tuesday night in favor of sending him to prison, demanding that the justices uphold a 2016 ruling that allows trial judges to jail defendants after a first appeal has been rejected. More than 5,000 prosecutors and judges have signed a petition supporting that position.

On Wednesday, demonstrators in support of da Silva’s imprisonment and others opposed to it gathered outside the court in Brasília, the capital, where the 11 justices were casting their votes. If the court rules against him, the federal judge who presided over his trial could issue a warrant for da Silva’s arrest as early as Thursday.