Brazil’s former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has walked out of jail to be greeted by jubilant supporters, providing a symbolic boost to a resurgent Latin American left.
A Brazilian judge on Friday afternoon ordered his release from prison in the southern city of Curitiba, pending an appeal by the leftist politician. It followed a stunning decision by the Supreme Court the day before which allowed for the release of possibly thousands of inmates who were appealing against their convictions.
Dressed in a dark jacket and navy jersey, a smiling Lula da Silva was embraced by his newly announced fiancée and senior members of his Workers’ party as scores of red-clad supporters chanted “Lula Livre!” or free Lula outside the prison where he spent 580 days. “I leave here without hatred. At 74, my heart only has room for love,” he said.
He was sentenced last year to 12 years in prison for corruption, a term that was reduced to nine years. The lawyers for the divisive former president on Friday morning requested his “immediate” release after Brazil’s Supreme Court court ruled that defendants could only be jailed after exhausting all of their appeals.
The court’s decision may also benefit others convicted in cases stemming from the sprawling Lava Jato, or Car Wash, corruption investigation, which since 2014 has ensnared scores of business people and politicians from across the spectrum in a contracts-for-kickbacks scheme involving Brazilian corporate giants.
Prosecutors from the Car Wash probe said that the Supreme Court’s decision “goes against the sentiment of repudiating impunity and the fight against corruption”. Yet Lula da Silva’s trial, critics argue, was fraught with judicial mis-steps.
Months after its conclusion, Sérgio Moro, the presiding judge, was named as justice minister under President Jair Bolsonaro, sparking claims of rightwing collusion. Until his conviction trounced his hopes of a return to office, opinion polls last year showed Lula da Silva was favoured to beat Mr Bolsonaro in the October presidential election.
“He was fulfilling his mission. If his mission was not well accomplished, I wouldn’t be here, ” Mr Bolsonaro said on Friday, referring to his justice and security minister. “So part of what happens in politics in Brazil we owe to Sérgio Moro.”
Mr Moro’s credentials were cast into further doubt in June after the release of leaked messages that appeared to show co-operation between the then-judge and the prosecutors in the trial of Lula da Silva. “Sometimes I hear that there were excesses in the Car Wash investigation, but no one can explain to me what exactly the abuse was. I think that the criminal conviction of people who have engaged in bribery crimes is rule of law, not abuse,” Mr Moro told the Financial Times in his office earlier this week.
Still, Lula da Silva has been portrayed as a political prisoner by supporters since his imprisonment in April last year. “The Supreme Court strengthened democracy and the constitution, which are being threatened by the far-right government. It also acknowledged, after one year and seven months, that Lula was illegally arrested. The cruelty ends here. We will continue to fight for justice, which is the annulment of Moro’s sentence,” said Gleisi Hoffmann, the president of Lula da Silva’s Workers’ party.
After a judge ordered Lula da Silva’s release on Friday, the former president’s official Twitter account posted a video showing him running and lifting weights in the gym while “Eye of the Tiger” played in the background. “Lula Livre”, the post said.
Although he is still facing a string of other corruption-related charges that may imperil a political comeback, much of Lula da Silva’s popularity stems from his charisma coupled with the policies he enacted as president between 2003 and 2010, when he was credited with steering Brazil through economic growth and poverty reduction.
After sound leftist electoral victories in Mexico last year, in neighbouring Argentina last month, and a still-contested one in volatile Bolivia, the freeing of a former icon of the Latin American left may serve to unite the region’s leftwing leaders.
“Hail Free Lula!” tweeted Argentina’s president-elect Alberto Fernández, while Venezuela’s socialist strongman Nicolás Maduro tweeted: “Truth triumphed in Brazil!”
US presidential candidate Bernie Sanders also welcomed the former leader’s release, tweeting: “As President, Lula has done more than anyone to lower poverty in Brazil and to stand up for workers. I am delighted that he has been released from jail, something that never should have happened in the first place.”
For his detractors, however, Lula da Silva fostered a culture of corruption and should have been kept in prison. “The rule of law is one of the pillars of our civilisation, ensuring that the law is applied equally to all. But today, November 8 2019, we must ask: where is the rule of law in Brazil?” said Hamilton Mourão, Brazil’s vice-president.