Brazil’s former leftist president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva flew into the southern city of Curitiba on Wednesday for a corruption trial that could doom his bid to return to power in 2018.
Lula, 71, arrived on an executive jet in Curitiba, where he will be grilled by Judge Sergio Moro on charges that he received a bribe in the form of a seaside apartment near Sao Paulo.
The hearing was due to go ahead at about 1700 GMT amid heavy security, after Lula’s lawyers failed in a last-ditch attempt to get an adjournment.
Moro heads the “Car Wash” graft probe, that has revealed mammoth bribery and embezzlement in Brazil’s political establishment, and Lula is his biggest target yet.
A verdict is not expected for weeks, but if Lula were found guilty, and then lost an appeal, he would be barred from seeking office, likely including running for re-election in 2018.
He could even face prison time.
A fiery orator who rose from shoeshine boy to union leader and founder of the Workers’ Party before leading Brazil from 2003-2010, Lula is a polarizing figure in Latin America’s biggest country.
He leads opinion polls ahead of next year’s election, yet inspires hatred from opponents who pushed Brazil sharply to the right over the last few years.
Several thousand supporters in red shirts and waving red flags were bussed in to Curitiba, joined by Lula’s successor in the presidency and Workers’ Party protegee Dilma Rousseff.
Riot police deployed in force, with horses, a water cannon and rows of officers ringing the courthouse.
“I think he is innocent. If they had something concrete against him, there’s no doubt he’d have been arrested,” said one protester, Gerson Castellano, 50.
“It’s a class struggle that’s going on.”
– Problems piling up –
The “Car Wash” probe revealed that top politicians from both the left and right sold access to juicy contracts at state oil company Petrobras throughout most of Lula’s presidency.
Scores of senators and other powerful figures have been convicted or are under investigation.
In Wednesday’s case, Lula is alleged to have taken a luxury seaside apartment near Sao Paulo as a bribe from the OAS construction company, which did lucrative business with Petrobras.
Prosecutors say they suspect he not only took bribes and sold influence, but amounted to a kingpin over the wider scheme.
Lula, who also faces four other corruption court cases, vigorously denies the charges, describing the onslaught as an attempt to destroy him and his leftist movement.
Against that backdrop, Wednesday’s court hearing was seen as a political high noon between the veteran politician and the implacable, increasingly popular 44-year-old Moro.
Hashtags trending on Twitter reflected the buzz and the bitter divide across Brazil, including #LulaEuConfio (I trust in Lula) and #MoroOrgulhoBrasileiro (Moro, pride of Brazil). Even more basic were #BrasilComLula (Brazil with Lula) and #BrasilComMoro (Brazil with Moro).
Raising pressure on Lula, a judge in Brasilia on Tuesday ordered the suspension of activities by the Lula Institute, a social research body set up by the ex-president, over suspicions it was linked to criminal activity in a separate corruption case.