RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva must stand trial on charges of money laundering and corruption, a Brazilian judge ruled Tuesday.
Judge Sergio Moro said there is enough evidence to start a judicial process against Silva, his wife and six others in a widening corruption probe centered on the country's huge state-run oil company, Petrobras.
Prosecutors have called Silva the "maximum commander" of the Petrobras graft scandal that has rocked Brazil. Prosecutors allege that billions of dollars in bribes were paid to win inflated contracts from the company.
The judge's decision had been expected after prosecutors charged Silva last week.
Silva on Tuesday called the accusation a "farce, a big lie and a great spectacle."
In explaining his decision, Moro said Silva and others benefited from renovations at a beachfront apartment in the coastal city of Guaruja in Sao Paulo state. The improvements were made by the construction company OAS, which is one of those involved in the kickback scheme at Petrobras.
Moro said prosecutors believe the former president received $1.15 million in bribes from OAS for getting it contracts related to refineries.
"The facts and evidence are enough for me to accept the accusation," he said in a document sent to the media. "Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva allegedly received benefits from Group OAS. According to the accusation, he had knowledge of its origins in the criminal scheme that damaged Petrobras."
The judge gave Silva and the other defendants 10 days to present their defense in court.
Silva, who was a highly popular president in 2003-10, has long been implicated in the so-called Car Wash investigation. But last week, prosecutors raised his purported role in the kickback scheme that goes back more than a decade, calling him the "maximum commander."
In a message streamlined on the YouTube channel of the Brazilian unions of metal and bank workers, Silva accused investigators of pushing other suspects in the case to implicate him in exchange for freedom. Many of those implicated have struck plea bargains with the prosecution for reduced sentences.
"I have a clear conscience. If they have one single proof against me — one, I am not asking for two — I want to be on trial like any other Brazilian citizen," he said.
Last week, Silva acknowledged having visited the penthouse cited in the accusation but said he never owned it.
He has said prosecutors are trying to undermine his chances for a return to politics. While his Workers' Party has lost much support amid corruption scandals in recent years, Silva continues to be a popular possible contender for the presidential race in 2018.
In a statement, defense lawyers Cristiano Zanin Martins and Roberto Teixeira said the allegations against Silva are flawed and lack proof. They accused the judge of being biased against the former president and said they hope a higher court will accept a motion they filed in July seeking to remove Moro from hearing the case.
The Petrobras investigation began more than two years ago and has led to the jailing of dozens of businessmen and top politicians. But the judge's decision on Tuesday is taking the case to a new level, analysts said.
"Moro has shown that the investigation will only fade away when Lula is behind bars," said Rafael de Paula Aguiar Araujo, a political science professor at Pontifical Catholic University of Sao Paulo.
Silva already had been ordered to stand trial on charges of obstruction of justice in another case related to Petrobras.
Associated Press writer Stan Lehman in Sao Paulo contributed to this report.