RIO DE JANEIRO (TNS): Brazil’s charismatic politician retains loyal supporters amid legal woes

 
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RIO DE JANEIRO July 13 (TNS): Political experts say the graft conviction Wednesday of former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who has wielded enormous influence across Latin America for decades and is  a front-runner for next year’s presidential election, opens the door for an outsider to take power in Latin America’s largest country.

Lula, a giant on the Brazilian political scene who led Brazil from 2003 to 2011, has said he wants to run for president again next year. But if his nearly 10-year sentence is upheld on appeal, Lula, a founder of the leftist Workers Party, would be barred from seeking office again for eight years, beginning after any jail time is complete.

Lula was convicted on Wednesday by Judge Sergio Moro, who found Lula guilty of accepting 3.7 million reais ($1.15 million) worth of bribes from engineering firm OAS SA [OAS.UL]. That is the amount prosecutors said the company spent refurbishing a beach apartment for Lula in return for his help winning contracts with state oil company Petroleo Brasileiro.

OAS was part of a supplier cartel that prosecutors said fleeced billions of dollars from Petrobras through inflated contracts, funneling some of the ill-gotten gains to politicians and political parties. Several OAS executives were jailed by Moro, the hard-charging judge overseeing the so-called Car Wash investigation, the largest-ever corruption probe in Brazil’s history.

Lula’ lawyers said he is innocent. He will remain free while his attorneys appeal the ruling, which they have characterized as a political witch hunt. The appeals court is expected to take at least eight months to rule.

“This politically motivated judgment attacks Brazil’s rule of law, democracy and Lula’s basic human rights,” Lula’s defense team wrote in an emailed statement. “It is of immense concern to the Brazilian people and to the international community.”

Despite his legal woes, the charismatic Lula remains Brazil’s best-known politician and has retained a base of loyal supporters. As president, he channeled resources from a commodities boom into social programs that helped lift millions from poverty.

Recent surveys from the respected Datafolha polling institute show that in a second-round runoff next year, Lula would beat all contenders.