Brazil minister says ruling that may free Lula must be respected

BRASILIA/CURITIBA (Reuters) – A decision by Brazil’s top court that may free former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva must be respected, Brazil’s justice minister said on Friday, in the first comments on the divisive ruling by the man who imprisoned the leftist leader.

Supporters of Brazil’s former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva gesture outside the Federal Police headquarters where Lula is serving a prison sentence, in Curitiba, Brazil November 8, 2019. REUTERS/Rodolfo Buhrer

Brazil’s Supreme Court decided on Thursday to end the mandatory imprisonment of convicted criminals after they lose their first appeal. The politically charged ruling could liberate Lula, as the former president is known, who is currently behind bars for a bribery conviction.

Lula was imprisoned by current Justice Minister Sergio Moro, who previously was a federal judge leading the so-called “Car Wash” probe, a sprawling graft investigation that jailed scores of the country’s business and political elite.

By a 6-5 vote late on Thursday, the court overturned a three-year-old rule that advocates said contributed to the success of the “Car Wash” probe.

The prospect of serving immediate prison time after losing a first appeal encouraged suspects to negotiate plea deals with prosecutors, providing them information that helped unravel the biggest graft scheme in Brazil’s history.

In his statement, Moro said lawmakers could now change the constitution to make prison time mandatory after a first failed appeal.

Lula was imprisoned in 2018 for eight years and 10 months after being found guilty of taking bribes from engineering firms in return for government contracts. He has declared his innocence and said the case against him was politically motivated.

He and his supporters have pointed to the fact that Moro accepted an invitation to become the justice minister of far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, a longtime foe of Lula and key rival in last year’s election.

On Friday, Lula’s lawyer Cristiano Zanin said he expected Lula’s release would be quick, adding that any delay would be politically motivated.

“What we are asking for is the immediate issuance of the release permit, because there is no legal backing to keep former President Lula for even an hour,” he said in Curitiba, where Lula is currently imprisoned.

Zanin added that Lula is very calm and believes that the Supreme Court decision was a “light of hope.”

Reporting by Lisandra Paraguassu and Leonardo Benassatto; Writing by Gabriel Stargardter; Editing by Brad Haynes and Jonathan Oatis

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