Brazil‘s former President Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva has said he is ready to turn himself in to begin a 12-year sentence for bribery, while maintaining he is the victim of a political campaign to stop him from running in this year’s elections.
In his first comments since being ordered to start his sentence, Lula told cheering supporters on Saturday that Brazil’s top anti-corruption judge “lied” about him being given a luxury apartment by a big construction firm as a kickback.
“I am the only human being to be put on trial for an apartment which does not belong to me,” he said.
But, he added: “I will comply with their warrant.”
The 72-year-old had been ordered to surrender to the police on Friday afternoon, but skipped the deadline and spent the night holed up inside the headquarters of a steel-workers union in an industrial suburb of Sao Paulo.
Thousands of his supporters surrounded the building overnight, dissuading the police from trying to arrest him.
He finally emerged on Saturday morning for an impromptu mass to commemorate his late wife, Marisa Leticia, who died last year.
In an hour-long speech at the event, Lula accused the judiciary and Brazil’s most powerful media conglomerate of assisting what he described as a right-wing “coup” aimed at preventing him from competing in October’s presidential elections.
Despite his legal problems, Lula is the clear frontrunner in the opinion polls. But on Saturday he appeared to be passing the torch, introducing the crowd to candidate Guilherme Boulos.
“Guilherme Boulos is a friend who is a candidate to be president of the republic. A friend who has all the qualities that you want,” he said as he paternalistically kissed Boulos.
Lula also rejected multiple suggestions of fleeing or seeking asylum abroad.
“You’ll see that I will come out of this bigger, stronger,” he said, promising to prove his innocence.
Police were now expected to take Lula to the southern city of Curitiba, where a “specially designed jail cell” awaited the former president, said Al Jazeera’s Daniel Schweimler, reporting from Sao Paulo.
Lula’s legal team filed an injunction with the Supreme Court late on Friday to suspend the prison order, after losing a last-minute plea to the second-highest court.
The lawyers argued they had not exhausted procedural appeals and painted the case as an effort to remove Lula from the presidential race.
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 supporters crowding the streets by the union office cheered defiant speeches calling the case a political witch-hunt.
The union where Lula had 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.
He left office with a sky-high approval rate of 83 percent and was once called “the most popular politician on Earth” by former US President Barack Obama.