Former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva said on Thursday that his prosecution, which he claims is based on unsubstantiated evidence, is politically motivated.
During a televised press conference, the 71-year-old Workers’ Party (PT) leader said the move is intended to destroy his group’s reputation ahead of the 2018 elections.
“We have to understand this as a political dispute,” Lula said.
“They don’t want to condemn Lula. They want to condemn our political project.”
Lula was sentenced on Wednesday to nine years and six months over corruption charges in the Operation Car Wash investigations.
He was condemned for passive corruption crimes and money laundering, as well as allegedly receiving bribes of about US$ 1.15 million. However, prison time has not been applied as the prosecution awaits an appeal.
The PT leader added that the investigation and charges were based on news reports that provided no substantial proof and a blank document without any names or signatures that prosecutors want to pass as evidence of corruption.
“They want to eliminate me from the political game. If they think that this will leave me out, know that I’m still in the political game,” Lula said.
“As my enemies are defying me, I’m calling on them to present one piece of solid evidence against me. There isn’t any proof that I committed such crimes.”
PT President Gleisi Hoffmann echoed Lula’s statements, claiming the conviction was “eminently political” and serves as a “provocation to democracy.”
The recently-elected party leader said her group will team up with social movements across the country to continue protests against the ruling.
Protesters are holding rallies in several Brazilian cities following the sentencing of the nation’s former President.
Sergio Moro, the lead judge in the multi-billion dollar corruption probe known as Car Wash, sentenced Lula to nine and a half years in jail. But his lawyers say he is innocent and accuse Moro of being politically motivated.
The prosecution will not enforce the sentence yet pending an appeal.
Lula’s Workers’ Party says the ruling is an “attack on democracy.” Party leaders called on supporters to organize protests across the country.
One demonstration took place in São Paulo’s main Avenue Paulista. Crowds shouted “Lula is innocent” and accused Judge Moro of having made a “political decision.”
“When the judiciary behaves as a political party, something is going badly wrong in the country, and that’s what’s happening in this process,” Guilherme Boulos, the head of the Homeless Movement said.
Boulos later told the crowd that he had just spoken to Lula, who says he is feeling strong and won’t let Moro’s verdict bring him down.
Another organizer of the protest in São Paulo, Matheus Assunção of the Landless Workers Movement (MST), said that, “The political agenda of the coup which includes Judge Sergio Moro, is part of an agenda of removing workers’ rights, as happened yesterday when the Senate approved one of the cruelest labor reforms in Brazil’s history.”
He added, “What’s more, there are indications that Judge Sergio Moro collaborates with the interests of North American imperialism and the financial system.”
Expressions of support for Lula also came in from around Latin America. The Bolivian president, Evo Morales, tweeted, “A judicial coup against our brother Lula, a potential candidate who would guarantee the victory of the Brazilian people. All our solidarity.”
The Argentine Nobel laureate, Adolfo Perez Esquivel, said, “Coup mongering is striking down labor rights and political rights. The people will not go without Lula.”
Social media users urged Lula’s supporters to gather under the hashtag #Lulainocente in São Paulo, Brasília, Salvador and Porto Alegre within hours of the sentencing.
The ruling could bar him from running for president in the upcoming 2018 elections, despite having the highest approval ratings of all likely candidates.