Brazil's Supreme Court Denies Ex-President Lula's Plea for Freedom

A Brazilian Supreme Court has ruled against former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in a late-night vote. Justices struck down his plea for freedom following the high profile conviction of the "Operação Lava Jato" (Operation Car Wash), a massive corruption inquiry that continues to shake up Brazil.

Lula's fate was decided in a 6 to 5 ruling in which Chief Justice Carmen Lucia Antunes Rocha cast the last vote. In deliberations that went past midnight on Thursday, justices voted one by one before deciding that the ex-president's 12-year, one-month prison sentence would not be delayed. Lula is expected to be sent to jail within days after pursuing a petition to appeal his corruption conviction outside of prison.

Ahead of the final decision, Mauricio Santoro, a political science professor from Rio de Janeiro State University (UERJ), told Newsweek that Brazilians felt on the cusp of a "moment of truth." The decision shows how Supreme Court justices stand in a country that is divided about the ex-president's future.

Lula has denied any wrongdoing and has held that charges mounted against him are an attempt to prevent him from running for president. Brazil's first working-class leader continues to defy expectations that he would pursue the presidential bid, even from behind bars. In the weeks leading to Wednesday's judgment, Lula has given speeches at campaign rallies, banking on his huge following.

While Michel Temer, Brazil's most unpopular president carries a current approval rating of around 4 percent, Lula has been widely seen as the front-runner for October's upcoming presidential race.

"Lula in jail would be more influential than out of prison," Santoro said. "Many will see him as a martyr. He could transfer lots of votes to another candidate," he said, adding that Lula would be a "kingmaker" and would yield influence for the next election.

However, there is a small likelihood that Lula will finish his full sentence, said Davi Tangerino a criminal lawyer and law professor at the São Paulo Law School of Fundação Getulio Vargas.

At 72 years old, Lula is more likely to be put on house arrest or serve time in a less-secure facility, Tangerino, told Newsweek.

"On top of that, every year the president issues a decree in which s(he) fully or partially pardons a indistinct number of prisoners, Tangerino said. "It is possible Lula could have some fraction of time pardoned after some years in jail."

If the judges had ruled in Lula's favor, it would have created a "significant" change of the presumption of innocence, Tangerino said. "Many defendants will have the chance to litigate their cases in freedom."

Lula, who led the left-wing Workers' Party, served as the country's most beloved leader from 2003 to 2011, reaching an approval rate of 87 percent—"levels never before registered" according to Brazil's Ibope poll. In the last few years, Lula has become a highly divisive figure in a country marred by corruption, with low trust in politicians. The highly popular former president is known for his Bolsa Familia program that lifted 20 million people out of poverty.

Yet three judges upheldLula's corruption conviction in January, which stemmed from a highly publicized money-laundering conviction and increased his jail time from 9 to 12 years. "Nobody can be absolved just because he's powerful," Judge Leandro Paulen said at the time.

In the massive investigation known as Operation Car Wash, Lula was found guilty of accepting 3.7 million reais ($1.2 million) worth of bribes from engineering firm OAS SA. Prosecutors have said the amount was used to upgrade Lula's luxury beachfront apartment in exchange for political favors. The charges have spread into a large-scale probe that implicated other politicians and business leaders.

The investigation morphed into the world's biggest bribery scheme involving Petrobras and Odebrecht—Brazil's largest construction firm—and became a multiyear inquiry into a bribes-and-kickbacks scandal that uncovered illegal payments and amounted to over $5 billion to top company leaders and political parties.

Asseguro à Nação que o Exército Brasileiro julga compartilhar o anseio de todos os cidadãos de bem de repúdio à impunidade e de respeito à Constituição, à paz social e à Democracia, bem como se mantém atento às suas missões institucionais.

— General Villas Boas (@Gen_VillasBoas) April 3, 2018

Weighing the impact of deliberations, Prosecutor General Raquel Dodge warned that allowing convicted criminals like Lula to remain free, pending appeals, would "annihilate" the justice system.

"The atmosphere cracked. It is no longer a legal debate or even an adjustment mechanism in the fight against corruption," João Trajano Sento-Sé, UERJ's associate professor of the Social Sciences Institute, told Newsweek regarding Wednesday's deliberations. "It is simply the imprisonment or not of Lula, as soon as possible, and what this will represent in national politics."