SAO PAULO – Brazilian former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has become the most famous prisoner in Curitiba, a southern city that has been dubbed the country’s anti-corruption capital and is hostile territory for the charismatic politician’s Workers’ Party (PT).
Over the past four years, dozens of prominent politicians and business leaders convicted of corruption have been brought to the Federal Police headquarters in Curitiba, which is ground zero for a far-reaching graft probe that was initially focused on a massive bribes-for-inflated-contracts scandal centered on Brazilian state oil company Petrobras.
That list includes the former chief executive officer of engineering giant Odebrecht, Marcelo Odebrecht; ex-CEO of major construction company OAS, Leo Pinheiro; the former speaker of Brazil’s lower house of Congress, Eduardo Cunha; and a former finance minister during Lula’s 2003 to 2011 administration, Antonio Palocci.
Although most of Curitiba has been completely unaffected by Lula’s arrival last Saturday, a 100-meter (330-foot) security perimeter has been established in the Santa Candida neighborhood where the police headquarters is located.
A makeshift camp populated by more than 500 Lula supporters has been set up near one end of the perimeter and is attracting more protesters from around the country every day.
They said they won’t leave until Lula, who is being held in a special 15-square-meter (161-square-foot) cell inside the police building, is released from custody.
“For us, Lula represents hope for change. He’s innocent and victim of a persecution that has always existed,” 23-year-old Kenya dos Santos, who was among the initial group of protesters at the “Free Lula” camp, told EFE.
The protest at the camp has been peaceful and calm, sources with Brazil’s Military Police told EFE, although they said local residents are not happy about the situation.
Anonymous donors are helping support the protest, a local PT leader in Parana state, Vanda Santana, told EFE, adding that authorities were making it difficult for supply trucks to arrive at the camp.
The prosperous city of Curitiba is unfriendly territory for Lula and the center-left PT, with voters there having supported a candidate from a different party in the past three presidential elections.
By contrast, crusading federal Judge Sergio Moro, who handed down the first bribery and money-laundering conviction against Lula last year and has spearheaded an unprecedented fight against corruption in Brazil, is a local hero.
In July 2017, Moro – whose office is in Curitiba, Parana’s capital – found Lula guilty of accepting bribes in exchange for helping Brazilian construction company OAS obtain lucrative contracts from Petrobras and sentenced him to nine years and six months in prison.
On Jan. 24, an appeals court in the southern city of Porto Alegre voted unanimously to uphold that earlier verdict and increase Lula’s prison sentence to 12 years and one month.
He began serving that sentence after the Supreme Court last week narrowly rejected a request by Lula’s defense team to allow him to remain free while continuing his legal battle.
The case against Lula, who denies any wrongdoing, is based largely on plea-bargained testimony from people already convicted as part of the sprawling investigation into the $2 billion Petrobras scandal.
Lula leads in the polls ahead of the October presidential election and the PT says he remains their presidential candidate, but the ex-head of state could be barred from running.
A 2010 law states that a defendant whose conviction has been upheld on appeal is barred from competing for public office for eight years.