Photographer: Dado Galdieri/Bloomberg

Brazil's Lula in Epic Showdown With Acclaimed Carwash Judge

  • Corruption probe’s lead jurist to question former president
  • ‘A battle between the political class and the judiciary’

Thousands of Brazilians have descended on the southern city of Curitiba for a showdown between one of the most popular leaders in the country’s history and its most famous judge at a hearing that could determine the republic’s future.

Lula, center, arrives at the Federal Courthouse to testify before Sergio Moro, in Curitiba on May 10.

Photographer: Dado Galdieri/Bloomberg

Former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has arrived there to testify Wednesday afternoon before Sergio Moro, the lead jurist in the sprawling corruption probe known as Operation Carwash. If convicted of any of the charges against him, including bribe-taking and influence trafficking, the charismatic leftist who ended his second term with an approval rating of 80-plus percent could end up in prison, dashing any possibility of a political comeback.

What started three years ago as an investigation into a money-laundering scheme run out of a gas station has blown up into a scandal that has tarnished Brazil’s political establishment and made Moro into a folk hero. The judge’s fans are pleading with him to run for president in 2018, with opinion polls placing him second to just one person: Lula. 

Moro will question the ex-president about claims he received benefits from a construction company trying to curry his favor. In the view of Lula’s supporters -- and some of his rivals -- Brazil’s political system itself is on trial.

A carwash anti-corruption supporter holds up handcuffs during a protest in front of the Oscar Niemeyer art museum.

Photographer: Dado Galdieri/Bloomberg

“It’s a battle between the political class and the judiciary, symbolized by two giants,” said Rogerio Arantes, a political scientist at the University of Sao Paulo. “We’ll have to wait and see which one of these two wins in the end.”

The left-wing leader’s red-shirted supporters were bused into Curitiba, a wealthy and conservative city. It’s from the 13th Federal Criminal Court there that the Harvard-educated Moro has tried, convicted and imprisoned dozens of the Brazilian elite for their part in a scheme that siphoned over $2 billion from the state-run oil company, Petroleo Brasileiro SA.

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‘Republic of Curitiba’

Lula, out of office since 2010, has long been in Moro’s sights. In March last year, the judge issued a warrant authorizing the ex-president’s temporary detention for questioning, sparking scuffles between supporters and police.

A demonstrator wears a costume resembling Lula during a protest in support of the former president on May 10.

Photographer: Dado Galdieri/Bloomberg

On leaked tapes of phone taps that were sanctioned by Moro, Lula fretted about the power of what he witheringly described as “the Republic of Curitiba.”

Locals have seized on the term as a badge of honor. In a country where the rich and powerful too often get away with murder, sometimes literally, Moro’s crusading judicial activism has turned him into a hero for millions.

Billboards in the city center show Lula in prison uniform along with the slogan “The Republic of Curitiba awaits you with open jails...#WeAreAllCarWash.” At least one was vandalized with red paint.

“Moro is the hero of the hour, bringing down all those thieves,” said Diego de Aguiar, a municipal worker trimming the grass in front of Curitiba’s court house. Like many in the city, Aguiar is braced for trouble when the hearing gets underway.

‘Climate Of Confrontation’

Supporters of Lula marched from a makeshift camp sandwiched between a railyard and a chain-link fence to the city center, where students, unionists and housing activists took turns at the megaphone blasting Moro and defending Lula.

Landless Worker’s movement supporters occupy a train yard during a protest held on May 9.

Photographer: Dado Galdieri/Bloomberg

"He was the best president we ever had. He isn’t guilty," Celeste Soares, a 56 year-old nurse who traveled six hours by bus to show her support for Lula, said in an interview. "He’s being persecuted precisely because of everything he did for the country. "

A much smaller group of Moro backers gathered outside the modern art museum, which hosts artwork confiscated from those convicted in Operation Carwash. A steady stream of passing cars honked horns in their support.

Renato Tamayo, 49, who owns a lighting company in Sao Paulo, flew in to support Moro.

"I’ll be satisfied with him getting condemned and being ineligible for election," said Tamayo, sporting a t-shirt with pictures of Carwash prosecutors. "We need political renewal in Brazil."

‘No Plan B’

Lula is a defendant in five separate criminal cases. Among the allegations is that he received upgrades to properties carried out by construction companies. State witnesses also allege that millions of reais in off-the-books donations were made to the Workers’ Party on his watch.

In September, federal prosecutor Deltan Dallagnol accused Lula of being the “mastermind” of the biggest graft scheme in Brazilian history. Lula has vehemently denied all the charges, saying they are politically motivated.

A spokesman for Lula said the legal proceedings are flawed and biased. “The process is full of irregularities,” said Jose Crispiniano of the Lula Institute.

Police officers guard the entrance of the federal courthouse in Curitiba on May 10.

Photographer: Dado Galdieri/Bloomberg

Despite the growing charge sheet, Lula has over recent months consolidated his lead in opinion polls for the 2018 presidential race. For Humberto Costa, a senator from the PT and close friend of Lula’s, the hounding of the former president has only strengthened him politically and cemented his position as the PT’s candidate. “The party has no Plan B,” Costa said.

With 18 months to go until the elections, some analysts argue the polls show name recognition rather than actual support for a candidate. Moro has said that he doesn’t intend to run for president.

For Marcos Troyjo, a Brazilian who teaches and co-heads an emerging markets forum at Columbia University in New York, regardless of whatever happens at the hearing, Lula is a long shot for 2018.

That election “will be something new,” he said. “I’m quite sure it won’t be a traditional political battle.”

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