Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the former Brazilian president and one of Latin America’s most popular political leaders, said on Saturday he would serve a jail term for corruption, ending a tense stand-off after he defied a Friday deadline to hand himself in.
The leftwing populist leader gave a defiant goodbye speech on Saturday to thousands of supporters gathered at a metalworkers union headquarters on the edge of São Paulo, where he has been holed up for the past three days.
Despite saying he would serve the sentence, the former president declared his innocence and slammed the ruling, in which he was convicted of accepting a luxury apartment from a construction company in exchange for government contracts.
“History a few days from now will prove that the ones who committed a crime were the police chief who accused me, the judge who condemned me and the prosecutors who [falsely accused] me,” said Mr Lula da Silva, in a fiery speech in front of cheering supporters from his Workers’ Party, unions and social movements.
The jailing of the leftist leader who is widely seen as Brazil’s most talented political campaigner will probably end his bid to make a comeback in presidential elections in October.
In spite of the long-running corruption case, Mr Lula da Silva, who was president for eight years ending in 2010, is leading in early polls with double the support of his nearest opponent, far-right politician Jair Bolsonaro.
He made his speech on Saturday after taking part in a mass to commemorate the birthday of his late wife Marisa Letícia Lula da Silva at the metalworkers’ union headquarters where he started his career.
Closely surrounded by other political leaders from the left, he said he was being imprisoned by elites angry at his record of helping the poor. During his rule, he amplified social benefits schemes for those in extreme poverty and increased minimum wages.
“The powerful can kill one or two or three roses but they will never be able to stop the coming spring,” he said, strutting the stage and shouting in his trademark gravelly voice.
The ex-president was condemned by Sérgio Moro, the judge leading Brazil’s biggest corruption investigation, Lava Jato, or Car Wash. While Mr Lula da Silva`s lawyers claim he is a victim of a political smear campaign, the former president is one of scores of politicians, business people and black market money dealers who are being investigated or prosecuted as part of the probe.
Judge Moro told Chinese television station CGTN on Friday that the ex-president “was convicted on money laundering and corruption and you have to enforce the judgment, it is as simple as that. I don’t see any specific reason to postpone it any more.”
This week, the former union leader lost a request to the high court to allow him to remain free while appealing the conviction.
Police were wary of trying to forcibly arrest him amid fears any heavy-handed approach would enrage the thousands of red-clad supporters surrounding the union headquarters. Mr Lula da Silva`s lawyers filed an injunction with the Supreme Court to suspend the prison order, which was denied on Saturday morning.
Despite the jailing, his supporters remain convinced he has done no wrong. His lawyers say his trial is a political ploy to keep him out of the presidential race.
From the terrace of the steel workers’ union a huge battle flag sporting the bearded face of Mr da Silva read: “Elections without Lula are a fraud”.
The final decision on whether he will be allowed to run will be made in August by the electoral court. But his chances are slim — candidates with a criminal conviction cannot run for public office for eight years.
Mr Lula da Silva also remains a divisive figure. While stalwart supporters on the left worship him, polls show the majority of Brazilians want to see him behind bars.
“There are two narratives now: that of Lula, the corrupt, and that of Lula, the martyr,” said Carlos Melo, a São Paulo-based political analyst with Insper university. “If the narrative of Lula, the corrupt, prevails, this may be his political end”