- - Wednesday, July 12, 2017

BELO HORIZONTE, Brazil | Former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, an icon of Latin America’s left, on Wednesday became the most prominent casualty to date of Brazil’s wide-ranging anti-corruption campaign when a federal judge sentenced him to 9½ years in prison.

The colorful and combative Silva, a onetime factory worker and union activist credited with transforming his country’s economy during his 2003-2011 rule and lifting millions of poor into an emerging middle class, had been widely expected to seek a return to power in next year’s presidential elections.

But those ambitions are now in jeopardy. Under Brazilian law, if Federal Judge Sergio Moro’s ruling is confirmed on appeal, it would make Silva ineligible to run. The appeals process, on average, takes about a year, so a final verdict could be expected just before the vote scheduled for October 2018.

Mr. Moro, the widely recognized jurist at the helm of the massive “Operation Car Wash” anti-corruption probe, found Silva guilty of having accepted some $1.1 million in bribes in exchange for helping a contractor secure a lucrative deal with Brazil’s state-owned Petrobras oil company.

Politicians across the Brazilian political spectrum and across the Latin American political landscape have been swept up in the massive influence-buying scandal. Earlier this week, Peruvian prosecutors said they will seek the arrest of former President Ollanta Humala and his wife on money laundering and conspiracy charges tied to the Brazilian scandal.

According to Silva’s sentence, the former president was given a luxury apartment in the posh beach town of Guaruaja, outside Sao Paulo, a property that then received costly renovations also paid for by OAS.

With appeals widely expected, Judge Moro did not order Silva’s immediate arrest, noting that the incarceration of a former head of state would cause “trauma” for Brazilians, many of whom had looked precisely to the man they call “Lula” to solve an ever-worsening political crisis.

But to his defenders, the decision not to lock up the Workers’ Party founder makes Mr. Moro’s decision all the more suspicions, noted Igor Fuser, a former Folha de S.Paulo editor who now teaches at the ABC Federal University outside Sao Paulo.

The judge’s goal “is not to do justice; he was not arrested because the goal is very clearly political,” Mr. Fuser said in an interview. “[Silva] is the leader in all polls for the presidential succession. This is a conviction designed to impede his candidacy in the 2018 elections.”

For Workers’ Party supporters, the decision is particularly painful as they are still reeling from last year’s impeachment and removal from office of Silva’s handpicked successor, Dilma Rousseff, a move they have long decried as a “coup” to catapult center-right leader Michael Temer to the presidency.

“The claws of the coup leader try to tarnish the history of a hero of the Brazilian people”, Ms. Rousseff said after the verdict. “But they will not succeed,” she predicted.

But just as impassioned as the reactions of the left were those on the right, which has long blamed Silva and Ms. Rousseff for the country’s prolonged economic malaise.

In fact, the two leftist leaders, benefiting from Latin America’s commodities boom, invented an “industrial-size” scheme of bribes, money laundering and abuse of public office, claimed Paulo Roberto de Almeida, director of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs-linked IPRI think tank in Brasilia.

“What the Workers’ Party did, what Lula did, was install a system in which corruption was a method of government [going as far as] to buy lawmakers, to buy entire parties,” Mr. de Almeida said. “It’s not ‘normal’ corruption; it’s something different and much more serious.”

Most here seem to agree, however, that Mr. Moro’s decision likely puts the nail in the coffin of Silva’s presidential comeback.

“One imagines that the appeals judges will behave in the same partial manner in which Sergio Moro behaved,” Mr. Fuser said. “It’s yet another coup.”

And though he expects the former president to fight to the end, Mr. de Almeida predicted Brazilians have had enough.

“Lula’s personal strategy — and the strategy of the Workers’ Party — will be to drag out [the appeal because] he can be a candidate until the verdict is confirmed,” Mr. de Almeida said. “But I believe that, politically, he no longer has a chance.”

In Belo Horizonte’s middle-class Barro Preto neighborhood, there was at least some anecdotal signs the corruption scandal has tarnished Silva’s once-legendary hold on ordinary Brazilian voters.

Lawyer Fernanda Vital, who learned of the decision while dining at a restaurant, said that, if anything, the 9½-year sentence was “too little.”

“He is an extremely corrupt person,” the 29-year-old Ms. Vital said, adding that she was happy he might now be out as a presidential contender. “At least, we’re cleaning up,” she said.

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