A justice on Brazil's Supreme Court has annulled corruption convictions against the country's former leftist president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva — a move that could be the first step toward clearing him to run next year against an increasingly vulnerable President Jair Bolsonaro.
The former president, widely known as Lula, who held office from 2003 through 2010, was found guilty in 2017 on corruption and money-laundering charges allegedly for helping a Brazilian engineering company secure lucrative contracts with Petrobras, the country's state-owned oil company. In exchange, the former president allegedly received a beachfront apartment from the firm. He was sentenced to 12 years in prison.
The conviction – part of a far-reaching corruption scandal known as Operation Car Wash — knocked the popular Lula out of the 2018 presidential race, where he had hoped to make a comeback. His absence from the race created an opportunity for the novice politician Bolsonaro, a brash right-wing nationalist who has frequently been compared to former U.S. President Donald Trump.
Lula, despite his conviction and sentence, was released from prison in 2019 on grounds that he was denied due process. However, he still faces several other prosecutions.
On Monday, Justice Edson Fachin ruled that a court in the southern city of Curitiba that convicted Lula lacked the jurisdiction to try him. That court was presided over by Sergio Moro, who now serves as Brazil's justice minister in Bolsonaro's Cabinet.
Lula has steadfastly denied the corruption allegations, calling them politically motivated to keep him out of presidential politics.
If the broader Supreme Court upholds the justice's decision on appeal, it would trigger a retrial in federal court in the capital, Brasilia.
On Tuesday, another Supreme Court justice, Gilmar Mendes, called for a Tuesday vote on an appeal by Lula's legal team alleging that Moro was not impartial in his investigation of Lula. If the court's full bench sides with the former president, the decision would effectively toss out the cases against him.
If Lula prevails, it could prove particularly bad timing for Bolsonaro, who has seen his approval ratings slump over his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, a faltering economy and holes in the government's finances. His standing would likely be hobbled going into next year's campaign for re-election.
A poll published last month showed just under a third of Brazilians approving of Bolsonaro's performance as president. By contrast, Lula remains popular and is expected to become an instant front-runner if he were to contest the presidency in 2022.