Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva Brazil's Supreme Court to rule on prison for ex-president

From early morning in the capital Brasilia, roads leading to the Supreme Court were blocked off and protesters were expected to gather in the coming hours.

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Former Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva greets supporters at the metalworkers' union building in Sao Bernardo do Campo, hours before a deadline he eventually missed to surrender and begin serving a 12-year prison sentence or face arrest play

Former Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva greets supporters at the metalworkers' union building in Sao Bernardo do Campo, hours before a deadline he eventually missed to surrender and begin serving a 12-year prison sentence or face arrest

(AFP)
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Brazil's supreme court was to rule Wednesday on whether former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva should start a 12 year prison sentence for corruption, potentially upending this year's presidential election.

Tension soared in Latin America's largest country ahead of the court showdown, with both backers and opponents of Lula -- currently the heavy favorite for the October polls -- warning of a threat to democracy.

From early morning in the capital Brasilia, roads leading to the Supreme Court were blocked off and protesters were expected to gather in the coming hours.

Late Tuesday, up to 20,000 people demonstrated in Brazil's biggest city, Sao Paulo, to demand Lula go to prison and be barred from the election.

The court, which has come under intense political pressure, was due to start deliberations at 2:00 pm (1700 GMT). With 11 justices casting votes, the session was likely to be lengthy.

Lula supporters rally outside the Metallurgical Union in Sao Bernardo do Campo play

Lula supporters rally outside the Metallurgical Union in Sao Bernardo do Campo

(AFP)

Lula, 72, was sentenced to 12 years and one month prison after being convicted last year of accepting a seaside apartment as a bribe from a major construction company seeking government contracts. He appealed in a lower court but lost.

Under current law, that means he should go immediately to prison, even while conducting further appeals in higher courts. However, Lula has asked the Supreme Court to grant him habeas corpus, allowing him to remain free while pursuing those appeals.

The court is believed to be evenly split on the issue, so that if only one judge changed position it would secure Lula's temporary freedom, and boost his uphill bid for a third term in office.

If the court turns him down, he could face jail within days.

Military jitters

Brazilian Federal Judge Sergio Moro is in charge of the sprawling "Car Wash" probe, which has revealed systemic, high-level embezzlement and bribery throughout Brazilian business and politics play

Brazilian Federal Judge Sergio Moro is in charge of the sprawling "Car Wash" probe, which has revealed systemic, high-level embezzlement and bribery throughout Brazilian business and politics

(AFP/File)

Lula left office after two terms between 2003-2010 as Brazil's most popular president on record, but he has since turned into a hugely divisive figure, inspiring adoration on the left and hatred on the right.

The court has faced an avalanche of demands from the two sides, with more than 5,000 judges and prosecutors signing a petition for Lula to be imprisoned immediately.

On Wednesday, Prosecutor General Raquel Dodge said that allowing convicted criminals to stay free pending several appeals would "annihilate" the justice system.

However, the court also has to contend with the fact that Lula holds an overwhelming lead in opinion polls ahead of the October 7 election. And while Brazilians have got used to seeing much of their political class become embroiled in corruption scandals, there is no precedent for the imprisonment of a two-term former president.

The issue is all the more sensitive given Brazil's recent history, with democracy being restored only in 1985, following two decades of military dictatorship.

This made apparently anti-Lula comments by the head of the army, General Eduardo Villas Boas, all the more surprising.

Villas Boas tweeted late Tuesday that the military shared Brazilians' "desire for the repudiation of impunity."

Villas Boas also asked "who is really thinking about the good of the country and future generations and who is only worried about personal interests?"

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(AFP)

Ahead of Villas Boas' unusual comments, an army reservist general lashed out in Estadao newspaper that a Supreme Court ruling that freeing Lula would "induce" violence and "fratricidal conflict."

General Luiz Gonzaga Schroeder Lessa, who has a history of making provocative remarks, even appeared to threaten a coup, saying an eventual Lula election victory would "leave no recourse but an armed reaction. The armed forces would have to restore order."

On Wednesday, the defense ministry issued a statement saying that Villas Boas was simply trying to reassure the nation.

"The message was that people can be calm, because the institutions are here. It was not a message about using force. It was the opposite," said the statement run by Globo newspaper.

One of the Supreme Court justices, Gilmar Mendes, has also tried to soothe the outcry, saying the court's ruling -- whichever way it went -- would lead to "a calming down, not an increase in conflict."

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