Brazil’s Supreme Court has rejected a petition by former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva to stay out of prison while he appeals a criminal conviction, clearing the way for the once wildly popular leftist leader to be jailed imminently for corruption and money-laundering.
The ruling came at a moment of profound political polarization in Brazil, and delighted and enraged equal parts of the population. But even some of Mr. da Silva’s admirers heralded the decision, calling it a blow against impunity of the powerful that would bolster the work of prosecutors attempting to dismantle a vast system of institutionalized graft.
Mr. da Silva’s lawyers argued that their client had a constitutional right to remain at liberty until all of his appeals are exhausted. But the court rejected that argument, in a 6-5 decision in which the deciding vote was cast by chief justice Carmen Lucia Antunes, whom Mr. da Silva appointed to the bench 12 years ago. The decision affirmed a previous ruling from 2016 that a person whose conviction is upheld on appeal can be jailed. That ruling was sought by prosecutors as a means to end the common practice of wealthy Brazilians of using near-endless legal appeals to avoid imprisonment, and to increase their leverage against politicians suspected of involvement in the graft scheme known as Lava Jato.
Mr. da Silva, who was president from 2003-10, tops polls for the next election in October; he maintains that the criminal prosecutions against him are an attempt to prevent his Workers’ Party from returning to power. He has been charged in six other corruption cases. He is expected to be jailed within a week, a step that will sharply reduce although not entirely eliminate the possibility of his candidacy.
Maurício 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.
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 São Paulo state. He was convicted by federal Judge Sergio Moro, who is presiding over the vast Lava Jato probe. Judge Moro is seen by many Brazilians as a rare honest figure championing the public interest; others view him as a partisan actor abusing his judicial power to carry out a vendetta against the left.
Thiago de Aragao, director of intelligence at Arko Advice, a Brasilia-based political analysis firm, said that the ruling “diminishes the sense of impunity” and ensures 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.
The ruling comes at a time when Brazil is deeply divided - more so than at any time he can remember, Prof. Santoro said. 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.
“In Brazil’s current situation, 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,” Gen. Eduardo Villas Boas wrote on Twitter late Tuesday night, adding that the military “shared the desire of all good citizens to repudiate impunity,” which was seen as a reference to Mr. da Silva’s effort to avoid jail.
His remarks were widely condemned, but also 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.
Tensions were already high when the general made his foray into politics. 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.) A Supreme Court judge, Edson Fachin, reported that his family was getting threats that they would face harm if he opposed Mr. da Silva’s plea. This kind of political violence is uncommon here.
“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.”
Mr. da Silva won the support of one justice on the bench, Gilmar Mendes, who is an avowed critic of the Workers’ Party. Analysts said he was voting with a view to the fate of other senior political figures who could imminently find themselves in Mr. da Silva’s position; President Michel Temer, to whom Mr. Mendes is believed to be close, is currently under investigation in a corruption case for the third time since he took office in 2016. Justice Mendes said as much himself in an interview on Tuesday: “If one roots for the imprisonment of A, one must remember that after will come B and C.”
Mr. da Silva, 72, was sentenced to 12 years and one month in prison on these charges, but Brazilian courts often release older defendants to house arrest after they serve a brief portion of their sentence.
The justices were not ruling on whether the appellate court’s decision to find Mr. da Silva guilty of corruption was the correct one, but only on the question of whether prison is appropriate for a defendant between second and third appeal, as the court ruled two years ago.