Brazil's highest court has delayed until April 4 a decision on whether ex-president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva should go to jail if he loses an appeal next week.
The Federal Supreme Court decision is a temporary shot in the arm for the 72-year-old leftist leader, the front-runner for October's presidential election, and means he cannot be jailed for at least two weeks.
The court, sitting in the capital Brasilia, was expected to decide whether losing an appeal next Monday at a lower court would automatically mean Lula's immediate arrest and incarceration, or if he would be given recourse to seek further legal remedies.
A court in Porto Alegre is to give its verdict on Monday on Lula's appeal against a 12-year jail sentence for money-laundering and corruption.
For weeks, Chief Justice Carmen Lucia of the Supreme Federal Tribunal had not responded to Lula's petition. But she changed course and scheduled Thursday's vote amid intense pressure, a sign of the weight that the former president continues to wield despite a corruption conviction and several other cases pending against him.
Even a justice who is critical of the former president voted in his favour, while demonstrators calling for his imprisonment rallied outside the court in the capital of Brasilia.
"I am comfortable here because it is hard to say I have any sympathy for the Workers' Party," Justice Gilmar Mendes said, referring to Lula's party.
April 4 ruling
The eventual ruling by the 11 judges, when they reconvene on April 4, will weigh heavily on Brazilian politics, seven months before the presidential elections, which Lula, despite his legal travails, is favoured to win.
The court convened at 2pm local time as around 150 supporters from the former president's Workers' Party (PT) waved "Free Lula" posters outside the building. Around 30 anti-Lula protesters also held a demonstration.
The judges could grant a habeas corpus petition that would allow Lula to remain at liberty for as long as he has a legal chance of avoiding jail. That could be months or even years.
However, a decision against Lula means he could go to jail immediately, if he has, by that time, already lost his appeal in Porto Alegre's Regional Court No. 4.
A lower court, the Superior Court of Justice, has already ruled against Lula on the habeas corpus issue.
Lula was found guilty in July 2017 of receiving a luxury seaside apartment as a bribe from a Brazilian construction company in return for contracts with state oil giant Petrobras. He was sentenced to 9.5 years in jail, which, in a January appeal, was increased to 12 years and one month.
The leftist leader, a two-term president from 2003-2010, insists he is innocent of the charges and that he is the victim of a campaign to prevent him from running for the presidency in October.
'Nobody more honest'
Most signs points to the court rejecting Lula's plea next Monday, and Lula could be arrested within hours. Even if he remains free, analysts believe Lula will eventually be declared ineligible for the October presidential elections. That decision ultimately rests with the electoral authorities, which will decide in August.
Undeterred, the 72-year-old has continued with a tour of southern Brazil to rally his supporters, and is scheduled to be in Foz do Iguaçu – on the border with Argentina and Paraguay – when the court in Porto Alegre passes its judgment.
Lula again denied the charges against him late Wednesday during his campaign tour.
"None of them is more honest than me. They turned out my house, even my mattress. They opened the air extractor and they did not have the courage to apologize and say that they did not find an illegal cent in my whole life," he said.
Seven months out from the election, Lula is still running at around 35 percent in the opinion polls, though he remains a divisive figure for Brazilians fed up with political corruption.
In an interview with AFP earlier this month, the former union leader admitted that he thinks "every day" about the possibility of going to jail, but was determined to fight to the end to prove his innocence.
Candidates have until August 15 to register for October's presidential election.