SÃO PAULO, Brazil — Brazil’s Supreme Court ruled early Thursday morning that former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva must be jailed before he can further appeal a corruption conviction, effectively extinguishing the 40-year career of one of the most influential politicians in modern Brazilian history.
“A lack of penal culpability would make it impossible for the state to hold people accountable, and that can lead to impunity,” she said.
Judge Sérgio Moro, who has presided over the Car Wash investigation, is expected to issue a prison mandate early next week.
In Brasilia, Lula supporters overran police barricades and surrounded the Supreme Court. The president of Brazil’s Landless Workers’ Movement, allied with Lula’s Workers’ Party, urged followers to occupy buildings around the country.
“There is no more dancing. It’s punches. It’s war. It’s a fight, and we will win,” Alexandre Conceição told supporters in Brasilia. “There will be no land that isn’t occupied. There will be no letup. There will be no public building that isn’t occupied.”
Lula, a charismatic leftist leader with working-class roots, benefited from a commodities boom during his 2003-2011 presidency that produced strong economic growth. He exited the presidency with a dizzying approval rating of 87 percent and was trying to make a comeback as a presidential candidate this year.
But a corruption conviction has sullied his campaign, and he has become the highest-profile leader ensnared in the Car Wash scandal — a sprawling kickback scheme that has tarnished Brazil’s ruling class.
Lula, 72, is accused of accepting renovations to a beachfront apartment performed by one of Brazil’s largest construction companies in exchange for lucrative contracts with the state oil giant Petrobras. But investigators see the case as the tip of the iceberg and say Lula was the mastermind of the wider Car Wash scheme. He has denied the corruption charge and any other crime connected with the scandal.
The verdict will follow two years of investigations and hearings. The case has polarized the country and sparked political violence in an otherwise peaceful democracy. Last month, Lula’s campaign caravan was struck by three bullets while he was canvassing for votes in southern Brazil. Nobody was hurt, but the attack spooked authorities, who have prepared for mass protests that could occur after the Supreme Court decision.
“Wednesday is D-Day in the fight against corruption in the Car Wash investigation,” tweeted Deltan Dallagnol, the lead prosecutor in the investigation. He expressed concern that a decision in favor of Lula could send a message about impunity to other Latin American countries affected by the scandal.
On the eve of the trial, Gen. Eduardo Villas Boas, the commander of the Brazilian army, tweeted that the military “repudiates impunity” and said the army was “attentive to its institutional missions.” The comments were seen as an effort to pressure the court to rule against Lula. While the remarks did not specifically mention Lula’s case, many Brazilians interpreted them as a veiled threat of possible military interference if the court ruled in favor of the former president.
Lúcia, the chief justice, called for calm ahead of the decision. “Ideological differences cannot turn into social hostility,” she said. “Differences of opinion must be respected.”
Lucia demanded increased security at the court Wednesday, after judges complained of being accosted on the street and on social media in relation to the case.
The trial motivated several groups that had orchestrated major protests in 2013 to return to the streets. In that year, about 2 million Brazilians around the country joined protests denouncing corruption, crime and police brutality. They were the largest demonstrations the country had seen in decades.
On Tuesday, thousands of protesters gathered at Avenida Paulista, São Paulo’s main artery, to demand the former president’s arrest. Meanwhile, demonstrations in support of Lula surged around the country.
“We want to send a message to the Supreme Court that impunity has to end,” said Ricardo Salles, 42, founder of Movimento Endireita Brasil, a right-wing group calling for greater ethics in Brazilian politics, at a rally on Tuesday. “Lula was the biggest traitor in Brazil, and he needs to pay like all other criminals.”
On Wednesday afternoon, a crowd at the metalworkers’ union office outside São Paulo where Lula began his career grew apprehensive about the court decision and turned off the televised broadcast.
“The coup-mongers need to understand that we will not give up,” the president of the union, Wagner Santana, told the crowd. “This is just the first punch in a fight.”
Lula, who has a fourth-grade education, was popular in part because he appealed to the poor in a country with high rates of inequality. He became known internationally for social welfare programs that helped pull 20 million people out of poverty.
But all the while, investigators say, he was orchestrating a scheme that channeled millions of dollars in bribes into the pockets of Brazil’s elite politicians.
“He robbed Brazil blind in the last 12 years in the name of the people,” said David Fleischer, an expert on Brazilian politics and professor at the University of Brasilia. The court ruling, he added, is “a momentous decision.”
When Lula left the presidency, his handpicked successor, Dilma Rousseff, was unable to maintain the economic gains of his presidency. As commodities prices crashed, Brazil quickly fell into its worst recession on record and popular support shifted to the right.
Despite their disillusionment with the left, many Brazilians remain enamored of Lula. He had hoped to use this year’s election to lead a renaissance of the Workers’ Party he founded in 1980. Polls have predicted he would win the October vote by a landslide. But that prospect seems increasingly implausible. The former president faces six other corruption trials, and his current conviction could bar him from running.
If the court decides he must be jailed, he could wind up behind bars early next week.
“They won’t jail my thoughts, they won’t jail my dreams,” Lula told a crowd of 5,000 people in Rio de Janeiro on Monday. “If they won’t let me walk, I’ll walk on your legs. If they won’t let me speak, I’ll speak through your lips.”