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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 10 December 2018

Brazil's top court: Lula can be jailed for upheld conviction

Celebratory fireworks erupted in country's major cities after decision was delivered

Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva during an act in Rio de Janeiro. Brazilian Supreme Court rejected a habeas corpus tried by the defense of Mr Lula, thus opening the possibility of jail time for the country's most popular leader. Antonio Lacerda / EPA
Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva during an act in Rio de Janeiro. Brazilian Supreme Court rejected a habeas corpus tried by the defense of Mr Lula, thus opening the possibility of jail time for the country's most popular leader. Antonio Lacerda / EPA

A sharply divided top court voted early on Thursday to reject an attempt by former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio da Silva to stay out of jail while he appeals a corruption conviction, delivering a hard blow to the front-running candidate in this year's presidential election.

After nearly 11 hours of often heated debate, the Supreme Federal Tribunal voted 6-5 to deny Mr da Silva's request to stave off a 12-year prison sentence while he fights a conviction that he has always argued was nothing more than a ploy to keep him off of the October ballot.

Despite the conviction and several other corruption charges against him, Mr da Silva leads all preference polls for the election.

The decision means that the former president will likely be jailed soon, though probably not until at least next week thanks to various technicalities.

Chief Justice Carmen Lucia, who was sharply criticized during the session by various colleagues, cast the deciding vote after the court was tied at 5 to 5.

"The constitution secures individual rights, which are fundamental to democracy, but it also assures the exercise of criminal law," she said.

The debate at the Supreme Federal Tribunal underscored how fraught the matter is at a time of high tension and angst in Brazil.

Justice Gilmar Mendes, traditionally a critic of Mr da Silva, voted in favour of his petition to stay out of jail, challenging his colleagues to buck pressure from society.

"If a court bows (to pressure), it might as well not exist," said Mr Mendes.

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Read more:

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Ex-President Lula faces jail for Brazilian bribery scandal

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Justice Luis Roberto Barroso argued that the integrity of the justice system was at stake.

"A penal system that doesn't work with minimal effectiveness leads to an instinct for taking justice into one's own hands," Mr Barroso said in voting against Mr da Silva.

The session reflected the debate happening across Brazil as millions tuned into the televised session. When the decision was delivered, fireworks and yells could be heard and seen in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo.

On the eve of the session that began on Wednesday afternoon, the country's army commander raised eyebrows — and was widely celebrated and condemned online — with tweets subtly supporting Mr da Silva's incarceration.

Gen. Eduardo Villas Boas posted two tweets Tuesday night that many interpreted as a form of pressure on the 11 justices on the Supreme Federal Tribunal and a veiled threat of intervention. Such concerns are taken seriously in a country that experienced a 1964-1985 military dictatorship.

"In Brazil's current situation, it's worth asking our institutions and the people who is really thinking about what is best for the country and future generations, and who is only worried about their personal interests?" the general wrote in one tweet.

Mr Da Silva, who was once wildly popular after his two terms as president from 2003 to 2010, has become a polarising figure amid a massive corruption scandal that has roiled Brazil the last several years and made average citizens furious with the political class.

He was convicted last year of helping a construction company get sweetheart contracts in exchange for the promise of a beachfront apartment. The conviction was handed down by Judge Sergio Moro, who is presiding over cases involving the mammoth "Car Wash" investigation.