Brazil’s former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, after almost five hours of testimony on Wednesday, called the corruption trial threatening to end his storied career a “farce”.
Lula is accused of receiving a seaside apartment as a kickback from the OAS construction company, and if found guilty could be barred from running for office and even jailed, destroying his hopes of coming back to power in the 2018 presidential elections.
The closed hearing put Lula, 71, face-to-face with judge Sergio Moro, a hero to many Brazilians for his relentless pursuit of senators, millionaires and other powerful figures in a graft probe called “Car Wash.”
Lula, whose 2003-2010 rule made him loved by the lower classes was defiant. “I consider this trial illegitimate and the accusation a farce,” he told Moro at the hearing in the southern city of Curitiba, video released afterward showed. He said prosecutors were accusing him “based on allegations in the press.”
As soon as he got out of court, Lula went to a campaign style rally with several thousand supporters who had bused into Curitiba earlier. “I thought after… there would at least be a document that the apartment was mine,” he told them. “I want to be judged on proof.”
Lula reiterated his plans to seek a third term next year. “I am preparing to return as a candidate,” he said. “I want to show that the elite is not competent to fix this country but that the steel worker… will manage.”
The Lula faithful, many clad in Workers’ Party red, responded deliriously, cheering “Lula, warrior of the Brazilian people,” and letting off fireworks.
But a much smaller group of opponents also gathered, raising an inflatable caricature of Lula dressed in prison garb.
Brazil’s media portrayed the court session as a showdown between two of the most powerful men in Brazil.
Moro, 44, has become a national figure for his role leading the “Car Wash” probe, which revealed massive kickbacks to politicians in return for inflated contracts with state oil company Petrobras, much of it during Lula’s presidency.
In Wednesday’s case, Lula is alleged to have taken a bribe from OAS – one of the main Petrobras contractors – in the form of a seaside apartment at a posh resort near São Paulo. But seated at a table with lawyers and prosecutors, Lula denied everything.
“I never asked for and I never received the apartment,” he said.
Prosecutors have previously painted Lula as a kingpin over the wider Petrobras corruption scheme.
However, in the video of the hearing Moro went out of his way to reassure Lula that he would “be treated with maximum respect, as any defendant, but also equally considering the office that he had held previously.” He also stressed that Lula did not face imminent arrest.
Lula arrived at the Curitiba courthouse on Wednesday surrounded by a sea of supporters. Once inside, in testimony lasting nearly five hours, he slammed his fist on the courtroom table and tossed documents down to underline his insistence that there was no proof of his wrongdoing in a political bribery case that has engulfed the highest echelons of Brazilian politics.
“I consider this trial illegitimate and the accusation a farce,” Lula told presiding Judge Sergio Moro, who warned the ex-president against wading into courtroom theatrics.
Lula then turned his ire to the Brazilian media, saying they had “massacred” his character and wanted “to get me dead or alive.” He also accused the prosecution of raising charges against him “based on allegations in the press.”
The former president’s trial is part of the larger “Car Wash” corruption probe, spearheaded by judge Moro. The wide scale investigation, which began three years ago, uncovered that construction firms had paid billions in kickbacks to politicians in exchange for lucrative government contracts with the state-run companies. Employees at the Odebrecht construction firm have admitted to making the payments.
Thus far, operation “Cash War” has led to charges against 179 individuals, many of whom are high-profile politicians. The 71-year-old Lula is the most prominent defendant. His alleged role as kingpin in the corruption scheme has polarized national opinion.