Brazil's Lula defies prison order as crowds rally for and against him

Former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva defied a judge’s order to report to prison Friday, setting up a showdown with authorities and triggering demonstrations around the country both for and against the charismatic politician’s stand.

Earlier in the day, an appeals court rejected a last-minute request by Lula to temporarily waive his prison mandate.

The former president was sentenced in January to 12 years in prison for accepting bribes from a large Brazilian construction company in return for government contracts. He denies any wrongdoing and has called the case a political witch hunt.

Lula, who appears set to be the first Brazilian president to be jailed since the country’s military dictatorship ended three decades ago, is leading in the polls ahead of a presidential election in October. He has vowed to continue his campaign from behind bars, if necessary.

On Thursday, Judge Sérgio Moro ordered Lula to report to the federal police station in Curitiba, about 250 miles from Sao Paulo, by 5 p.m. next day to begin serving his sentence after the Supreme Court refused to let him stay out of prison until the appeals process is exhausted. Moro is the main judge presiding over Brazil’s “Car Wash” corruption investigation and has gained international recognition for holding some of Brazil’s most powerful politicians accountable in the scandal.

Lula told local media he did not intend to turn himself in and spent the night at the headquarters of the metalworkers’ union where he began his career four decades ago. Outside, hundreds of supporters wearing the traditional red of the Workers’ Party he founded in 1980 surrounded the building.

“Come get him,” they chanted.

Lula briefly came to the window, waved to supporters and raised his fist in the air.

Outside, a banner read, “An election without Lula is fraud!”

Earlier, Lula was seen hugging leading members of the Worker’s Party, who chanted his name and said goodbye. 

Lula’s supporters counted down to the 5 p.m. deadline and cheered as it passed.  Masked supports doused the apartment building of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court’s home in Minas state in red paint. 

“This is pitting Lula’s political mobilization strength against the powers of the prosecutors and police,” said David Fleischer, a professor and political expert at the University of Brasilia. “He’s trying to turn himself into a martyr.”

The day’s events capped a stunning fall for the man former president Barack Obama once called “the most popular politician on Earth.” Lula, who left the presidency in 2011 with soaring approval ratings, has been attempting to stage a political comeback and secure another term in office.

Instead, he has become the highest-profile figure convicted in connection with the “Car Wash” scandal, a sprawling corruption scheme that has tarnished the reputation of dozens of Brazilian politicians. President Michel Temer and several members of his cabinet are now under investigation in relation to the scheme.

Demonstrators both for and against Lula took to the streets Friday, blocking 50 highways throughout the country. A woman was shot at a pro-Lula rally in northern Brazil. Army units were on standby in case of wider unrest.

In his home town in northern Brazil, supporters of the former president set fire to tires and tree trunks, cutting access to the main highway. In Curitiba, anti-Lula protesters set off fireworks outside the police facility where he is slated to begin serving his sentence in a private, 160-square-foot unlocked room with unfettered access to lawyers and family members.

Lula began his political career as a union organizer during the two-decade-long military dictatorship era. In 1980, he was briefly arrested for leading a strike and jailed for a month. His arrest drew national attention to the strike and kick-started a political career that would eventually lead him to the presidency in 2003.

A working-class politician with a fourth-grade education, Lula pioneered social programs credited with lifting 20 million people out of poverty. But his reputation has been sullied by a raft of corruption allegations. He currently faces six other corruption trials.

“He won’t resist but he won’t go to the slaughterhouse with his head bowed,” Lula’s lawyer Jose Roberto Batochio told local media.

Lula’s defense issued a second appeal to the Supreme Court to waive his prison mandate, arguing it was illegally rushed before the appeals court officially finalized its case. A similar appeal to a lower court was denied earlier in the day. 

The lawyers were said to be negotiating with authorities about whether and how the president would turn himself in. 

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