Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s deadline has come and gone, and still the former Brazilian president remains a free man — for now, at least. He has hunkered down with his supporters in a São Paulo suburb, some 280 miles from the southern city of Curitiba, where a judge’s order had mandated that he present himself to police by 4 p.m. ET Friday.
Just an hour earlier, the country’s top appeals court rejected da Silva’s latest bid to stay out of custody while he continues to fight a corruption conviction handed down last year. The latest decision backed the supreme court’s 6-5 ruling Wednesday, which concluded he must begin his 12-year prison sentence for graft and money laundering.
Da Silva, 72, has been free during the appeals process.
The ruling has deeply complicated the political prospects for the wildly popular two-term ex-president, who left office about seven years ago with high approval ratings and now commands a significant lead in the 2018 presidential race.
That popularity was on display at the metalworkers’ union in São Bernardo do Campo, where da Silva is staying — and where, as NPR’s Philip Reeves reports, thousands of people have gathered all day. As soon as the clock passed the appointed surrender time, those supporters burst out in song: “Olê, olê, olá, Lulá, Lulá!”
Da Silva, his Workers’ Party and his supporters have cast the conviction as the machinations of a ruling elite seeking to prevent him from running. The party tweeted that Wednesday’s ruling was “a tragic day for democracy and for Brazil,” adding in another tweet that “there is no justice in this decision.”
Prosecutors see the matter differently.
Da Silva was caught up in Operation Car Wash, a massive corruption probe that has also implicated Brazil’s sitting president, Michel Temer, and several of the country’s most influential business leaders. According to investigators, da Silva accepted illegal kickbacks in exchange for favors on government contracts.
“It’s important to show that people are going to jail for doing wrong things, even if it was an ex-president,” one protester told Philip earlier this week, during a demonstration urging the supreme court to rule against da Silva.
On Tuesday, not long before the ruling against da Silva, the commander of Brazil’s army weighed in. The military, like “all good citizens, repudiates impunity and respects the Constitution, social peace and democracy,” Gen. Eduardo Villas Boas tweeted, according to a Reuters translation.
“In Brazil’s current situation,” he said, “it is up to the institutions and citizens to ask who is really thinking of the well-being of our country and its future generations and who is only concerned about personal interests.”