Brazil’s Supreme Court has upheld a ruling annulling the corruption convictions of former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, clearing the way for him to run for a new presidential term next year against incumbent Jair Bolsonaro.
The majority decision, which was widely expected, came on Thursday after Supreme Court Justice Edson Fachin determined in early March that the lower federal court where Lula was tried lacked jurisdiction; a ruling that was quickly appealed by Brazil’s top prosecutor.
The ruling does not find Lula innocent but in effect places prosecutors back at square one by sending the cases to a different court.
The quashing of Lula’s convictions – albeit on procedural grounds – has upended Brazilian politics as far-right President Jair Bolsonaro gears up to seek re-election as the COVID-19 pandemic ravages Latin America’s biggest country.
Bolsonaro has described a virus that has killed more than 365,000 Brazilians, the world’s second-highest death toll, as a “little flu”. After Fachin’s ruling, Lula described Bolsonaro’s approach to the pandemic as “imbecilic” and likened the situation to a genocide.
A popular but tarnished left-wing politician and former steelworker, the now 75-year-old Lula led Brazil through an economic boom from 2003 to 2010.
His lawyers called the judges’ decision “historic.”
“This is another Supreme Court ruling that reestablishes the credibility of the justice system in our country,” they said in a statement.
Bolsonaro, a former army captain who is 66, said the ruling means “Lula is now a candidate” for 2022 – and ominously warned of the consequences.
“Look what Brazil’s future is going to be like with the kind of people he’d bring into the presidency,” the current president said in his weekly live address on Facebook.
“You can all draw your own conclusions.”
Lula was convicted of taking bribes from engineering firms in return for public contracts in 2018 and spent a year and a half behind bars until the Supreme Court ruled he and others could appeal their cases without serving time in prison.
Lula and his supporters blasted the anti-corruption task force that brought him down, called Operation Car Wash, which exposed enormous corruption involving state oil giant Petrobas, as a politically driven effort. Leaked conversations in 2019 raised questions about whether investigators had cut corners to secure prosecutions.
The task force was disbanded in February. Lula has always maintained he is innocent and that the cases against him were a conspiracy to sideline him politically.
The election is scheduled for October 2022. Early polls suggest it will be a tight race.