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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 18 June 2018

Brazil's ex-president Lula ignores arrest deadline

The 72-year-old let the 5pm deadline pass without public comment

Former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva greets his supporters from a window of the Metalworkers' Union in Sao Bernardo do Campo, Brazil. Victor Moriyama/ Getty Images
Former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva greets his supporters from a window of the Metalworkers' Union in Sao Bernardo do Campo, Brazil. Victor Moriyama/ Getty Images

Ex-president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the controversial frontrunner in Brazil's October presidential election, ignored a deadline to surrender and start a 12-year prison sentence for corruption on Friday.

Holed up with thousands of cheering supporters in the metalworkers' union building in his hometown of Sao Bernardo do Campo, near Sao Paulo, the 72-year-old let the 5pm deadline pass without public comment.

The development further heated up the drama over attempts to put behind bars the veteran leftist, who ruled from 2003-2011 and leads in polls ahead of the elections.

He was ordered Thursday by Brazil's top anti-corruption judge, Sergio Moro, to surrender voluntarily to police and begin incarceration in the southern city of Curitiba.

Moro gave him 24 hours, saying the cell, a separate room with its own toilet, was ready, and that Mr Lula would not be handcuffed -- if he came quietly.

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It was not clear what the next step would be. However, local media reported that Mr Lula's lawyers were negotiating the surrender.

It would be impossible for police to arrest him by force without the likelihood of major crowd trouble.

Much of the day, Mr Lula had been waiting in hope that the country's top appeals court, the Superior Tribunal of Justice, would temporarily suspend his arrest warrant. However, the petition was rejected shortly before the deadline expired.

Mr Lula was convicted last year of taking a luxury apartment as a kickback from a big construction company. He lost a lower court appeal in January and saw his sentence increased from nine to 12 years.

But to his Workers' Party faithful, Mr Lula is a victim of a right-wing plot to prevent him from returning to power.

The longer he remained holed up inside the union building, the bigger the crowd grew outside.

"Lula is innocent, Lula for president!" supporters chanted.

Renata Swiecik, an unemployed mother of four who had joined the human shield, urged Lulanot to hand himself over.

"We are here to resist to the end. Lula will not be a prisoner in 2018, he'll be president and help the people once more," said Swiecik, 31.

Mr Lula's imprisonment is being celebrated on the right and among prosecutors supporting the "Car Wash" probe, which has revealed systemic, high-level embezzlement and bribery throughout Brazilian business and politics over the last four years.

To them, Mr Lula epitomises Brazil's corruption-riddled elite. His conviction is the biggest "Car Wash" scalp by far.

"I want Lula in prison, I want a better future and with him in the leadership we won't have that," said Maura Moraes de Oliveira, 51, who works as a maid in Curitiba.

"Not only Lula should be locked up, but all the corrupt, a complete cleaning."

Operation "Car Wash" was named after the service station where agents initially investigated a minor money laundering scheme in 2014, before realizing that they'd stumbled on a gargantuan web of embezzlement and bribery at state oil company Petrobras and right through the political classes.

Mr Lula, who grew up poor and with little formal education before becoming a trade union leader and politician, has long said he will go down fighting.

In theory, once someone has been convicted and lost a lower court appeal, he or she is barred from running for office under Brazil's clean-slate law.

Still, even in prison, Mr Lula has the right to register as a candidate. It would then be up to the Superior Electoral Tribunal to rule on whether his candidacy could stand.

Although Mr Lula would almost certainly be blocked, he could use the process to maintain his political influence.