PORTO ALEGRE, Brazil (AP) — A Brazilian appellate court delivered a blow to former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva's hopes of running for a third term, unanimously upholding a graft conviction against him Wednesday and even adding years to his prison sentence.
The decision was the latest legal setback for da Silva, who was wildly popular as president in 2003-2010 and has been leading the polls for October's presidential election. But he has also been dogged by corruption allegations amid a mushrooming corruption scandal that has taken down top politicians and business executives in Latin America's largest nation.
While da Silva has several avenues to still get on the October ballot — and his lawyers have said they will appeal any setback — the ruling further complicates a political comeback. Many argue that sidelining him could anger millions of his supporters and shake the country's political stability.
A three-judge panel spent the morning hearing arguments from both sides over da Silva's conviction on corruption and money laundering charges, alleging that he was promised an apartment as a payoff from a construction company in return for contracts.
Judge Joao Pedro Gebran Neto was the first to vote. He went beyond the original conviction, saying that jail time should be 12 years and one month, an increase of more than two years from the sentence levied in July.
The other two judges agreed on all counts. Experts say da Silva is unlikely to be jailed until all of his appeals are exhausted.
"Nobody can be absolved just because he's powerful," said Judge Leandro Paulen, referring to da Silva's large following.
While da Silva faces corruption charges in six more cases, the 72-year-old has been leading preference polls for October's race.
A defiant da Silva appeared at a rally of his supporters in a central square in Sao Paulo hours after the ruling and maintained his innocence. A few miles (kilometers) away, his detractors celebrated the ruling.
"I want them to tell me what crime I committed," da Silva told the crowd. "I have been convicted again for a freaking apartment that is not mine."
Da Silva's defense team called the ruling a "farce."
"This verdict is not safe and is a miscarriage of justice and we will continue to fight this political conviction," his lawyers said in a statement. "Lula's basic human rights have been breached and all of his domestic legal remedies are closed and we are referring the actions and decision of this court to the United Nations Human Rights Committee."
His Workers' Party declared it would proceed with its plan to register da Silva as its presidential candidate in August.
"We will fight in defense of democracy in all forums, in the judiciary and mainly on the streets," party chairwoman Gleisi Hoffmann said in a statement. "If some think the story ends with today's decision, they are very wrong because we do not surrender before injustice."
By law, a criminal conviction that has been upheld on appeal makes a Brazilian ineligible to run for office. However, da Silva can appeal the conviction to higher courts. Ultimately, the country's Supreme Electoral Tribunal makes decisions about candidacies, and legal experts say a final ruling may not come until September. The Supreme Court could also weigh in on the case.
Matthew Taylor, an associate professor at the School of International Service at American University in Washington, said the case is likely to drag on.
"I think all sides are going to try to use this decision for political advantage," he said in a conference call with reporters organized by the Wilson Institute. "There's a strategic decision by the Workers' Party to use this decision as a way to build support for the party, especially among the left."
With tensions high, authorities closed streets around the courthouse in the southern city of Porto Alegre as the hearing opened. Helicopters hovered above, police patrolled on horses and sharpshooters stood on rooftops.
The case was so closely watched that in the afternoon Brazil took over much of Twitter: Three of the top 10 topics trending worldwide were about the case.
In this deeply polarized, continent-sized nation, the case is part of a larger narrative, with supporters and detractors of da Silva offering their own interpretations. Da Silva and his supporters say it and the other corruption cases are an attempt to keep him from returning to office. They argue it's part of a conspiracy by Brazil's elite seeking to keep out a president like da Silva who focuses on the poor and levels the playing field in one of the world's most unequal nations.
Detractors note that da Silva and his left-leaning Workers' Party were running the country while a widespread corruption scheme siphoned billions from state oil company Petrobras and helped Latin America's largest economy fall into its worst recession in decades.
"I supported Lula long ago, but he became one of the crooks," said Diego Esteves, a university student in Porto Alegre.
Over the last several years, the "Car Wash" corruption investigation has landed dozens of the nation's elite, from businessmen to politicians, in jail. Several construction companies formed a de facto cartel, which decided which would get inflated contracts that included billions of dollars in bribes and kickbacks to politicians, company officials and political parties in the form of campaign contributions.
The judges on Wednesday reviewed a case involving a beachfront apartment in Guaruja, a city in the state of Sao Paulo. Prosecutors argued da Silva was promised the apartment, owned by construction company OAS, in exchange for contracts. In plea bargain testimony, the company's CEO said the apartment was slated for da Silva.
"Numerous tax notes, testimony and messages between executives indicated the apartment was being prepared for the former president," said prosecutor Mauricio Gotardo Gerum.
Da Silva and his lawyers have always argued the case defied logic as the former president never owned the apartment, never had the keys and never spent a night there.
In July, Judge Sergio Moro sentenced da Silva to 9½ years in prison. Moro has been the presiding judge in many of the major "Car Wash" cases and his convictions have rarely been overturned.
Many Brazilians see Moro as a hero fighting endemic corruption, while others see him as deeply partisan and intent on keeping the left from returning to power.
"This is not a simple trial. This is us against them," said school teacher Claudio Thomas, who likened the atmosphere to a soccer competition, adding: "The championship does not end here."
Associated Press writer Mauricio Savarese reported this story in Porto Alegre and AP writer Peter Prengaman reported from Rio de Janeiro. AP writer Sarah DiLorenzo in Sao Paulo contributed to this report.
Mauricio Savarese on Twitter: https://twitter.com/MSavarese
Peter Prengaman on Twitter: https://twitter.com/peterprengaman