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Brazil prosecutors want ‘preventive arrest’ of ex-president Lula

Former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva waves to the crowd from his home in Sao Bernardo do Campo, Brazil, March 5, 2016.


Prosecutors in Sao Paulo have asked a judge to order the "preventive arrest" of former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, shocking the country and sharply raising the level of polarization in Brazil's ongoing corruption and governance drama. They have charged Mr. da Silva with money-laundering in connection with a luxury apartment in the beach town of Guaruja, in the state of Sao Paulo.

In the request, the three prosecutors with the state court say that if he is not detained, Mr. da Silva could "activate his violent network."

These charges are separate from those connected with the giant "Lava Jato" corruption scandal on which the former president was detained and questioned for three hours on March 4, but concern the same apartment.

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A judge still needs to rule on the validity of the detention request, and the time frame on this is unclear. The charges, of money-laundering and misrepresentation of assets, were brought to the judge on Wednesday, but the arrest request was only made public on Thursday.

Mr. da Silva has denied the allegations, saying he did nothing wrong and did not own the apartment building, on which the construction group OAS allegedly did extensive upgrades for his use.

"The order of preventive arrest of the accused is also essential, to facilitate the criminal investigation, since there is ample reason to believe he will activate all his violent 'network' of support to prevent the criminal procedure that starts with these charges from following its natural course, with the evident likelihood of threats to victims and witnesses and the impairment of the gathering of other evidence in this case," the request says.

The florid prosecution request goes on to say that Mr. da Silva's conduct after police detained him last week "would have embarrassed Marx and Hegel."

Thiago Bottino, a professor of criminal law at the Getulio Vargas Foundation, called the request troubling and clearly politically motivated.

"I'm not a big fan of the former president, at all, and I think he should be investigated and face charges if there is evidence of any crime – but if [the prosecutors] do something like this with a person that was president twice and received millions and millions of votes, I'm afraid of what they could do with me, or with journalists, or anyone against their political beliefs," he said.

At a news conference in Sao Paulo on Thursday, the prosecutors denied any political motivation for the investigation. "Our agenda is judicial, and it doesn't matter if this or that procedure will have political repercussion," Jose Carlos Blat told reporters.

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But on social media, supporters of Mr. da Silva and his Workers' Party (PT) decried the arrest request as wild overreach for money-laundering charges, and said an attempt to detain him could produce "civil war," a phrase invoked repeatedly.

Mr. da Siva, who is 70, was president from 2003-10 and presided over a period of huge economic growth and social change in Brazil during which some 30 million people moved out of poverty. He is widely loved by a large part of the population and is still a leading figure of the political left in Latin America.

Last week, he was swept up in the ever-broadening investigation of a kickbacks-for-contracts scandal at the state oil company Petrobras, which prosecutors allege was worth $2-billion (U.S.), and in which dozens of the country's top political and business figures are implicated, leading to an ongoing political and economic crisis of unprecedented dimensions.

Investigators in that scandal, often known by the code name of its police investigation, Lava Jato – or car wash in Portuguese – say that Mr. da Silva effectively took ownership of the apartment from OAS in exchange for influence, and that the construction group used funds tied to the graft scheme for renovations, a charge the former president emphatically denied.

Massive demonstrations are planned nationwide for Sunday, against and in support of the government.

On Wednesday, Ricardo Berzoini, the minister in charge of legislative affairs, suggested that the former president could be made a minister in the PT-led government of Dilma Rousseff, his hand-selected successor as president – which would give him a degree of immunity from the prosecution. Under Brazilian law, sitting politicians can only be tried by the Supreme Court.

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"The ball is in his court," Mr. Berzoini told Reuters. "The government is good with it. Which government would not want to have Pele on the field?" he said, comparing Lula to the legendary Brazilian football player." Mr. da Silva's supporters say that the Supreme Court is his only hope of receiving a fair trial.

The former president's wife, Marisa Leticia, and one of their sons, Fabio Luis Lula da Silva, are also accused of money-laundering in the Sao Paulo-based case.

The family's lawyer, Cristiano Zanin Martins, denounced the arrest request. "[The prosecutors] sought to, in fact, muzzle a political leader, stifle his free expression and even the exercise of his rights," he said in a statement. "Only in the dictatorship, when all citizens' rights were suspended, was the holding of opinion and the exercise of rights reason for deprivation of liberty."

The Sao Paulo prosecutors also requested the arrest of Leo Pinheiro, OAS's president, and Joao Vaccari Neto, former treasurer of the Workers' Party. Both are also being investigated in the Lava Jato probe.

"A senior judge has the case and I hope she will resist the temptation to become a temporary judicial celebrity," Prof. Bottino said. "But that's the problem now – everybody wants to be in the newspaper, in the media. I have never before seen a state prosecutor or a federal prosecutor ask for the temporary arrest of anybody and go to the press and say 'we are trying to arrest' – if they really believe he is going to flee, they would never tell anyone but the judge."

Among the many mystifying aspects of recent developments is why, with the Lava Jato team already looking into the apartment issue, state prosecutors in Sao Paulo decided to move ahead with an attempt to prosecute the former president in relation to the same events.

Prof. Bottino attributed a basic human motive. "The state prosecutors are jealous: They're jealous of federal prosecutors because Lava Jato is much bigger and more comprehensive," he said.

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