Former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva on Saturday said he would surrender to police, a day after defying a judge’s order to start serving a 12-year prison sentence for corruption that derails his effort to return to power this year.
In a fiery speech to a crowd of red-shirted supporters outside a steel workers union headquarters, Brazil’s first working-class president insisted on his innocence and called his bribery conviction a political crime, but relented after a nearly 24-hour standoff with authorities.
“I will comply with the order and all of you will become Lula,” Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva told the cheering crowd. “I’m not above the law. If I didn’t believe in the law, I wouldn’t have started a political party. I would have started a revolution.”
Lula’s imprisonment removes the most influential figure from Brazil’s political scene, and the frontrunner from this year’s presidential campaign, scrambling a wide-open race and strengthening the odds of a more centrist candidate prevailing, according to analysts and political foes.
It also marks the unmistakable end of an era for Brazil’s left, which was out in force in the streets outside of the union headquarters in metropolitan Sao Paulo where Lula huddled with aides and allies while police awaited his surrender.
The throngs of supporters, which began gathering when he arrived late on Thursday night, dissuaded police from trying to take him into custody and heightened concerns about a violent showdown.
Lula was convicted of taking bribes, including renovation of a three-floor seaside apartment that he denies ever owning, from an engineering firm in return for help landing public contracts.
“I’m the only person being prosecuted over an apartment that isn’t mine,” insisted Lula, standing on a truck-pulled platform alongside his impeached successor Dilma Rousseff and leaders of other left-wing parties.
A Brazilian Supreme court justice on Saturday rejected the latest plea by Lula’s legal team, which argued they had not exhausted procedural appeals when a judge issued the order to turn himself in.
Under Brazilian electoral law, a candidate is forbidden from running for office for eight years after being found guilty of a crime. Rare exceptions have been made in the past, and the final decision would be made by the top electoral court if and when Lula officially files to be a candidate.
The union where Lula, 72, sought refuge served as the launch pad for his career nearly four decades ago, when he led nationwide strikes that helped to end Brazil’s 1964-85 military dictatorship.
Lula’s everyman style and unvarnished speeches electrified masses and eventually won him two terms as president, from 2003 to 2011, when he oversaw robust economic growth and falling inequality amid a commodities boom.