Two appellate court judges have voted to uphold a graft conviction against ex-president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, potentially prohibiting the former leader from running for president in October, despite holding a lead in the polls.
The decision is the latest legal setback for Lula, who was wildly popular during his time in office (2003-2010) but has since faced several corruption allegations amid a mushrooming graft scandal that has taken down top politicians and businessmen across the country.
While Lula has several avenues to explore that may still get on the ballot for October's election — and his lawyers have already indicated they will appeal any setback — the decision further complicates his political comeback. Many argue that sidelining the popular ex-Workers' Party (PT) leader could anger millions of his supporters and impact the country's political stability.
While a third judge's vote could impact on the avenues Lula's team takes in its appeals, a simple majority was enough to uphold the conviction.
After hearing arguments in the morning from the prosecution and defence, Judge João Pedro Gebran Neto voted first. He went beyond the original conviction, saying jail time should be extended to 12 years and one month, an increase of more than two years from the sentence first levelled in July.
"I consider the culpability in the case extremely high," said Gebran Neto. "This is about a former president and a corruption scheme that prevailed for years."
A couple of hours later, after a break for lunch, Judge Leandro Paulen also upheld the conviction and agreed on extending the former president's sentence.
"Nobody can be absolved just because he's powerful," said Paulen, referring to Lula.
Despite myriad legal troubles — Lula has been convicted in this case and is facing charges in six others — the 72-year-old leads preference polls for October's race.
Authorities closed streets around the court in the southern city of Porto Alegre on Wednesday as the case opened. Helicopters hovered above, police patrolled on horses and sharpshooters were positioned 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. The top trending topic was the hashtag "MoluscoNaCadeia," or "MolluskInJail." That was a play on the fact that da Silva is universally known as "Lula," which is a common nickname for Luiz but also means squid in Portuguese.
In Brazil, a deeply polarised, continent-sized nation, the case is part of a larger narrative, with supporters and detractors of Lula offering their own interpretations. The former president 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: the nation's elite do not want a president who would focus on the poor and equal the playing field in one of the world's most unequal nations.
Detractors note that Lula and his left-leaning political party were running the country while a massive 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 so-called "Car Wash" (Lava Jato in Portuguese) corruption probe has landed dozens of the nation's elite, from businessmen to politicians, in jail. Several construction companies formed a de facto cartel, which decided who would get inflated contracts that included billions of dollars in bribes in kickbacks to politicians, company officials and parties in the form of campaign contributions.
The case being reviewed Wednesday dealt with a beachfront apartment in Guaruja, a city in the state of São Paulo. Prosecutors argued that Lula 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 the former president.
"There is no doubt about the evidence," said prosecutor Mauricio Gotardo Gerum. "Numerous tax notes, testimony and messages between executives indicated the apartment was being prepared for the former president."
Lula and his lawyers have always argued the case defies logic, as the former president never owned the apartment.
"It's clear from the records that [da Silva] never received the keys or spent a single day or night" at the property, said lawyer Cristiano Zanin.
In July, Judge Sergio Moro sentenced da Silva to nine-and-a-half 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 rooting out endemic corruption, while others see him as deeply partisan and intent on keeping the left from returning to power.
Speaking from his home city of São Bernardo do Campo before the first two judges voted, the former union leader said he was "absolutely certain" he did not commit a crime.
"Given that no crime was committed, the only decision these three judges can make is that Judge Moro made a mistake in his sentence," Lula said.
On Wednesday, thousands of the former president's supporters and a smaller number of detractors descended on Porto Alegre.
By law, a criminal conviction upheld on appeal makes a candidate ineligible to run for office. But Lula can appeal the conviction to higher courts. Ultimately, the country's Supreme Electoral Tribunal makes decisions about candidacies, and the ballot won't be set until August.
"This is not a simple trial. This is us against them," said school teacher Claudio Thomas, who likened the atmosphere to a football competition. "Even if Lula loses this match, and our judiciary seems rigged enough for me to believe he will lose, the championship does not end here."