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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 13 December 2018

Brazil's Lula declares readiness to go to jail

Shielded by supporters, former president missed court deadline to begin 12-year sentence

Former Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva speaks to supporters outside the metalworkers' union building in Sao Bernardo do Campo, in metropolitan Sao Paulo, on April 7, 2018. Neslon Almeida / AFP
Former Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva speaks to supporters outside the metalworkers' union building in Sao Bernardo do Campo, in metropolitan Sao Paulo, on April 7, 2018. Neslon Almeida / AFP

Brazil's election front-runner and leftist icon Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva told thousands of supporters on Saturday that he was ready to turn himself in to start a 12-year sentence for corruption, but insisted on his innocence.

In his hometown of Sao Bernardo do Campo, Mr da Silva left the metalworkers' union building where he had spent the last two days and addressed the cheering crowd that had been acting as a human shield.

The two-term former president called himself "an outraged citizen" over his conviction for accepting a luxury apartment as a bribe. He said Brazil's top anti-corruption judge, Sergio Moro, "lied" about him being given the 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 "I will comply with their warrant," he said.

Despite his legal problems, Mr da Silva, 72, is the front-runner in polls ahead of Brazil's October presidential election and his exit from the race would throw it wide open. Currently a hard-right former army officer, Jair Bolsonaro, is polling in second place.

In his passionate, combative, hour-long speech, Mr da Silva accused the judiciary and Brazil's most powerful media conglomerate of assisting a right-wing coup with the ultimate aim of preventing him from competing.

"They don't want me to take part," he said. "Their obsession is to get a photo of Lula as a prisoner."

Mr da Silva, popularly known as "Lula", had been ordered by Mr Moro to surrender to the authorities on Friday, but he skipped the deadline, staying surrounded by his supporters in the union building.

Throughout his speech, the crowd, mostly wearing the red of his Workers' Party, chanted for him not to surrender.

"Free Lula, free Lula!" they shouted.

But Mr da Silva said he now wanted to go to prison and that he had rejected suggestions of fleeing or seeking asylum abroad.

"I want to face them and look at them in their eyes," he said of his accusers.

"You'll see that I will come out of this bigger, stronger," he said, promising to prove his innocence.

After the speech, he was lifted on to the shoulders of supporters who chanted "I am Lula" and carried him back into the building.

It was not clear exactly when he would surrender to the authorities or where, given the potentially volatile crowd still camped around the union building.

Mr da Silva was convicted last year of taking a luxury seaside apartment near Sao Paulo as a kickback from the construction company OAS. He lost a lower court appeal in January and saw his sentence increased from nine to 12 years.

He faces a number other court cases and is considered the biggest scalp so far for prosecutors in a mammoth anti-graft probe dubbed "Car Wash", an unravelling of systemic bribery and embezzlement in the top echelons of Brazilian politics.

Ever since Wednesday, Mr da Silva and his supporters have tried everything to delay the start of his prison sentence, battling everywhere from the supreme court to the streets.

The feverish political drama - blending Mr da Silva's charismatic political style, the epic struggle against graft, and the fate of the October elections - has gripped Latin America's biggest nation.

To his Workers' Party faithful, he is a victim of an out-of-control judiciary preventing him from returning to power.

They remember him for a 2003-2010 presidency that saw tens of millions lifted from poverty and Brazil rise on the world stage.

However, his imminent arrest is being celebrated by many Brazilians.

The Car Wash probe is wildly popular. For many, Mr da Silva epitomizes Brazil's corruption-riddled elite.