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Brazil’s Lula to stand trial over corruption case at state oil firm

Former president says he is subject of a politically motivated “witch hunt” over Petrobras scandal

Lula da Silva at a press conference on September 15.
Lula da Silva at a press conference on September 15. REUTERS

Brazil’s former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva will stand trial on corruption charges, a federal judge ruled on Tuesday.

Judge Sérgio Moro said that Lula, who served as president from 2003 to 2011 and who left office as the country’s most popular politician, will face charges of accepting $1.1 million in bribes connected to a wide-ranging kickback probe at state-run oil company Petrobras.

The former shoeshine boy and union leader led nationwide strikes against Brazil’s military dictatorship during the 1970s and 1980s

Moro wrote in his ruling that according to the prosecutors’ charges, Lula was a “direct beneficiary” of bribes from OAS, one of the engineering and construction firms at the center of the graft scandal, and therefore must stand trial.

The corruption case will also put Lula’s wife, Marisa Letícia Lula da Silva in the dock, as well as OAS Chief Executive José Aldemário Pinheiro and Paulo Okamotto, the president of the Lula Institute, along with four others.

OAS was one of several leading Brazilian companies that allegedly overcharged the oil giant for contracts and split the extra money with corrupt Petrobras executives while setting aside some of the loot to pay off politicians who provided cover for the graft.

Responding to the news, Lula’s lawyers insisted on Tuesday their client had committed no crime, accusing Moro as “impartial”, and leading a witch hunt to see the former leader jailed.

Lula, speaking via video link, told an event held by his lawyers in New York that the charges were a “farce”.

Lula is accused of benefiting directly from bribes 

“What's happening isn't getting me down, but just motivates me to go out and talk more,” said Lula, adding that he “will keep fighting.”

The two-year-old “Operation Carwash” anti-corruption investigation, based in the southern Brazilian city of Curitiba, has uncovered how political appointees named by Lula’s Workers Party (PT) and its allies handed out overpriced contracts to engineering firms in return for illicit party funding and bribes.

As well as receiving $1.1 million, Lula is accused of accepting a luxury apartment in Guarujá on the coast of São Paulo from OAS. Lula has denied ownership of the three-floor condo, and his lawyers have dismissed the charges as a political plot to stymie his political comeback.

The scandal contributed to the fall from power last month of Lula’s chosen successor, Dilma Rousseff, who was impeached by Congress in a separate case of breaking budget rules, amid rising anger over her handling of Brazil’s worst recession since the 1930s.

Lula has separately been indicted by a court in Brasilia for obstruction of justice in a case related to an attempt to persuade a defendant in the Petrobras scandal not to turn state’s witness.

The former shoeshine boy and union leader who led nationwide strikes against Brazil’s military dictatorship during the 1970s and 1980s, contributing to its downfall, Lula was elected the nation’s first working-class president in 2002 after three failed campaigns. He became a hero of Brazil’s poor, with his policies helping millions to escape poverty.

English version by Nick Lyne.

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