Sentenced to prison, Lula sets eyes on Brazil's presidency

Sao Paulo (AFP) –


Former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva Thursday defiantly brushed aside his conviction on corruption charges and said he plans to run again for president of Brazil next year.

"I'm still in the game," the 71-year-old leftist politician told a news conference.

It was Lula's first public reaction to the nine-and-a-half year sentence handed down Wednesday by an anti-corruption judge who found him guilty of taking bribes and money-laundering.

Lula, who has been leading in voter intention polls, portrayed the verdict as an attempt to prevent him from being a candidate in the October 2018 elections.

He accused the judges arrayed against him in several corruption cases of "destroying democracy in our country" and engaging in a "witch hunt."

"It's not Lula they are trying to convict, it is the political project that I represent for millions of Brazilians," he said.

Lula said he was convicted "without proof" on Wednesday by anti-corruption judge Sergio Moro, who found that the former president received a luxury beachside apartment and $1.1 million in cash from one of Brazil's biggest construction companies, OAS.

Lula, in power from 2003 to 2010, remains free while his lawyers appeal the verdict.

- Popular ex-leader -

His conviction, a stunning fall from grace for one of Brazil's most popular presidents in modern times, comes amid a sprawling, three-year corruption probe into kickbacks from construction groups and state oil giant Petrobras to political parties, particularly Lula's Workers' Party.

The investigation is known as "Car Wash," after the spot in Brasilia where money was allegedly transferred through an exchange shop.

Although the verdict against him can be overturned by a higher court on appeal, Brazil's justice system moves slowly, posing a major obstacle to a run for the presidency.

But Lula brushed that aside, saying: "I want to tell my party that, from now on, I am gong to call on the Workers' Party to put me forward as its candidate in 2018."

Moro, who has earned widespread popularity for his unflinching campaign against corruption in Brazil's political class, is also seen as a possible presidential candidate.

Many of Lula's supporters have discounted the charges against him, seeing them as part of a plot to sideline their political hero, whose policies helped lift many out of poverty.

In addition to his conviction, however, the former president also faces four other graft cases, including allegations of a $3.7 million bribe to buy land to build his Lula Institution highlighting his political legacy, and claims he received a kickback in Brazil's purchase of Swedish warplanes.

- Political turmoil -

One of Lula's lawyers, Valeska Zanin Martins, said on Wednesday: "They want to leave Lula out of the presidential race, and Lula leads the polls."

Lula's conviction and sentencing deepens the sense of crisis consuming Brazil's politicians.

His chosen successor, Dilma Rousseff, was impeached and booted from office last year, with Temer, her vice president, taking over.

Now Temer is also charged with taking bribes, as have several of his ministers who have resigned.

The national drama is playing out against a backdrop of economic difficulties.

The country -- Latin America's biggest economy -- was riding high when Lula was in power, earning an investor-grade rating and winning the rights to host last year's Olympic Games.

But under Rousseff, Brazil tipped into its worst recession in decades.

As Temer implements long overdue reforms to get finances under control, the country has started limping towards an exit from the recession.

The stock market and Brazilian currency firmed on news of Lula's conviction, as investors welcomed the reduced chance of Lula -- a leftwing former trade unionist seen likely to undo the reforms -- returning to power.