The court ruled late Thursday in a landmark decision that defendants may remain free while they exhaust appeals in their cases. The former head of state, popularly known as Lula, has suddenly reemerged as a possible contender against his political opposite: controversial far-right President Jair Bolsonaro. But da Silva, 74, cannot run unless his corruption conviction is overturned.
Da Silva was mobbed by supporters as he left the federal police headquarters building in the southern city of Curitiba on Friday. He already looked like he was campaigning as he raised his fist and embraced well-wishers. “They tried to criminalize the left,” he said in an address to the crowd. “They didn’t lock up a man, they tried to kill an idea. But an idea can’t be destroyed.”
Da Silva announced that he would hold a gathering of supporters at a metalworkers union in São Paulo on Saturday before launching a national tour.
U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) linked to a story on da Silva’s release on Twitter and said he was “delighted.” Sanders said his incarceration “never should have happened in the first place.”
Da Silva responded to Sanders in a tweet, thanking him for his “solidarity” and adding that Sanders has “always been my candidate for the U.S. presidency.”
Da Silva began serving a 12-year sentence (later reduced to less than nine years) in 2018 for corruption and money laundering linked to charges that he and his wife illegally received about $1.1 million from a construction company tied to a beachfront apartment. In exchange, the construction operation was granted contracts from the state-controlled Petrobas oil company, according to prosecutors.
Critics contend the charges were politically motivated at a time when da Silva had been favored to win the 2018 presidential election. Bolsonaro won instead.
Others in the corruption case that ensnared da Silva are also being freed, along with thousands of other inmates appealing their sentences. Until the new ruling, people convicted could be ordered to prison to begin their sentences before their appeals were exhausted.
The former union leader and head of the Workers Party was in charge during a run of economic growth from 2003 to 2010 that boosted the nation’s middle class. Da Silva’s massive welfare program also helped lift millions from poverty, and he left office with an approval rating of more than 80%.