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World Jail order for former Brazilian president Lula strikes blow at perceived impunity of the powerful

Former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva arrives at his home on Wednesday. His moment of reckoning comes at a time of profound political polarization in Brazil.

Paulo Whitaker/Reuters

Former Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who enjoyed global fame and massive popularity at home when he left office eight years ago, is expected to be jailed imminently, in a landmark moment in the country’s political history.

In the wee hours of Thursday morning, the Supreme Court rejected a last-ditch petition from Mr. da Silva to avoid imprisonment while he appeals a conviction for corruption and money-laundering.

By the evening, Sergio Moro, the federal court judge who has gained celebrity status overseeing the vast Lava Jato graft investigation, had issued an arrest warrant. He gave Mr. da Silva 24 hours to turn himself in to federal police in the southern city of Curitiba and begin serving a 12-year sentence.

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Brazil’s Supreme Court ruled on Thursday that leftist former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva must start serving a 12-year prison sentence for taking bribes. Reuters

Mr. da Silva’s moment of reckoning comes at a time of profound political polarization in Brazil; the idea that he would soon be behind bars provoked celebration in some quarters and despair and anger in others.

But even some of Mr. da Silva’s admirers heralded the Supreme Court’s 6-5 decision to uphold existing law and deny him the right to stay out of jail during his appeal, calling it a strike against impunity of the powerful that would bolster the work of prosecutors attempting to dismantle a vast system of institutionalized graft.

Mr. da Silva, 72, has said the corruption charges are part of a campaign of political persecution by the traditional Brazilian elite who resent the redistributive income policies of his presidency; his lawyers argued that he has a constitutional right to remain at liberty until all of his appeals are exhausted.

Related: Brazilian general sets country on edge by hinting of military intervention if courts rule in favour of former president

Read more: Brazil divided as Supreme Court rules former president Lula can be jailed, rejecting plea

But the court rejected that argument; five of the judges who voted against the petition had been named to the bench either by Mr. da Silva himself or by his successor and ally Dilma Rousseff.

Judge Moro has tried politicians from all major parties in the Lava Jato probe but is seen by many here to have a particular focus on Mr. da Silva. In January, an appeals court upheld the former president’s conviction on charges of having helped a construction company win contracts with the state energy firm Petrobras in exchange for a beachfront apartment in Sao Paulo state.

On Thursday, Judge Moro took just 22 minutes, from the moment the case was put up for processing, to issue the arrest warrant – although Mr. da Silva technically had another five days to deal with bureaucratic issues related to the conviction.

Mr. da Silva faces corruption charges in six other cases, but he nevertheless tops the polls for the next presidential election in October. Judge Moro’s swift move to jail him reinforced the sense among the ex-president’s supporters that the judge has a political motivation. While it is not technically impossible for Mr. da Silva to run for office from a jail cell, the arrest warrant likely ends his campaign.

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Mauricio Santoro, a political scientist at the State University of Rio de Janeiro, predicted that Mr. da Silva would be “even more influential in jail” than he is outside it – playing the role of wrongly convicted martyr behind bars when many politicians who are known to be corrupt remain at liberty – and would be the kingmaker in the election if he cannot run.

Thiago de Aragao, director of intelligence at Arko Advice, a Brasilia-based political analysis firm, said that by clearing the way for him to be jailed, the Supreme Court “diminishes the sense of impunity” and ensured that Lava Jato will continue. “If the decision had gone Lula’s way, there would be no more fear of being arrested, plea bargains would lose their purpose and hundreds of accused would be able to kick the can down the road forever without the fear of being arrested,” he said.

But Mr. da Silva’s supporters derided the idea that the ruling had to do with ending impunity, noting that dozens of other senior political figures – starting with President Michel Temer – have been indicted or are being investigated in corruption cases on a far greater scale than those involving Mr. da Silva.

Prof. Santoro said the drama around the former president’s case comes as the country is more divided than at any point he can recall. On the eve of the hearing, the general in charge of the army shocked many by appearing to warn the Supreme Court judges against ruling in favour of Mr. da Silva. His remarks were widely condemned, but won support on social media and from far-right politicians who have recently been articulating nostalgia for the era of military dictatorship, which ended in 1985. Shots were fired at buses carrying media to a rally by Mr. da Silva’s supporters in the south of the country on March 27 (no one was hurt).

“The country is being plunged again into the climate of a no-rules boxing match that prevailed during the [political] crisis two years ago,” columnist Bernardo Mello Franco wrote in the national newspaper O Globo on Wednesday. ”And unfortunately this time we are descending into a well that is even deeper, one that allows for the intimidation of judges, the firing of shots at political demonstrations and even threats of a military coup.”

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