Former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva defied an order to turn himself in to police last night, as he hunkered down with supporters at a metallurgical union that was the spiritual birthplace of his rise to power.
The once wildly popular leader, who rose from poverty to lead Latin America’s largest nation, had until 5pm to present himself to police in the city of Curitiba to begin serving a prison sentence of 12 years and one month for a corruption conviction.
But as the deadline passed, Lula remained inside the union building in the São Paulo suburb of São Bernardo do Campo, about 260 miles (417 kilometres) northeast of Curitiba.
Late last night, a defence attorney for the former president said that Lula would not resist attempts to arrest him. Lawyer José Roberto Batochio told the Folha de S. Paulo newspaper that Lula would not “go to the slaughterhouse crestfallen” and instead would turn himself in to authorities “out of his free will.”
Party leaders said he would address supporters and he was recorded waving them to them from a window.
Two sources close to Lula said that the former leader would definitely not go to Curitiba, but instead was considering either waiting for police at the union or presenting himself in São Paulo. They spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to share internal deliberations being discussed.
Forcing Lula out of the union building on a Friday night would be a logistical nightmare given the thousands of supporters outside — clashes would be a possibility — and heavy Friday traffic in São Paulo.
Additional reports said he plans to surrender himself this morning, after holding a Mass in honour of his late second wife Marisa, who would have trurned 68 on April 7. It is unclear if the police had agreed to those terms.
At press time, reports from Brazil said Lula had asked to a petition to ask the Supreme Court for the suspension of the arrest order against him.
Federal judge Sergio Moro, seen by many in Brazil as a crusader against endemic graft, ordered da Silva to turn present himself to police by Friday afternoon.
“The intention is not to force compliance at any cost, but rather follow the order the best way possible, with tranquility and without a media show,” Luis Antonio Boudens, president of the Federal Police, said in a statement.
Moro’s warrant on Thursday came after Brazil’s top court, the Supreme Federal Tribunal, voted 6-5 to deny a request by the former president to stay out of prison while he appealed a conviction that he contends was simply a way to keep him off the ballot in October’s election. He is the front-running presidential candidate despite his conviction.
In a statement, Moro said he was giving Lula the opportunity to come in of his own accord because he had been Brazil’s president. He also said a special cell away from other inmates had been prepared for the former president at the jail in Curitiba, where Moro ordered Lula to present himself.
Last year, Moro convicted the former president of trading favours with a construction company in exchange for the promise of a beachfront apartment. That conviction was upheld by an appeals court in January.
The speed with which Moro issued the warrant surprised many, as legal observers said there were technicalities from Lula’s upheld appeal that would not be sorted out until next week.
Such technicalities “were simply a pathology that should be eliminated from the judicial world,” Moro said in a statement.
Reports in Brazil suggested the federal judge had been heavily pressed by federal prosecutors to issue a warrant as soon as possible.
Late Thursday, thousands began gathering outside the metallurgical union in São Bernardo do Campo where the expresident universally known as Lula got his start as a union organiser. Hundreds spent the night sleeping on the street, and by Friday evening thousands were again outside.
Like so much in a nation that has become deeply polarised, the fact that Lula would soon be behind bars was being interpreted differently by supporters and detractors.
“It’s a victory for justice,” Congressman Jair Bolsonaro, a far-right-wing former Army captain who is second in the polls, said in a video posted on Twitter.
António Ferreira dos Santos, a 43-year-old bricklayer who was keeping vigil outside the union, had a different take.
“Lula is one of us. He knows what it is like to have a tough life and loves the poor more than the rich,” said dos Santos.