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In an historic development that will surely mark the end of his campaign to return to the presidency in the October elections, Brazil's ex-president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva turned himself in to federal police on Saturday night and has begun to serve a 12-year prison sentence for corruption and money laundering.
Brazilians were transfixed by a standoff carried live by the local TV networks since federal judge Sergio Moro, who oversees the country's far-ranging Lava Jato investigation, issued an arrest warrant for the charismatic leftist leader, following a supreme court decision to reject an habeas corpus request from Lula's lawyers to allow the former head of state to retain his freedom while he continues to appeal his conviction.
Moro gave Lula until 5pm on Friday to turn himself in to the police, but the ex-president and former metalworker union leader remained at the São Paulo headquarters of his old union to be with his supporters. "I am innocent and even in jail I will prove my innocence," Lula told his supporters on Saturday, before turning himself in and being flown to Curitiba city to begin serving his sentence.
Lula, 72, was sentenced last year by judge Moro in relation to 3.7mn reais (US$1.1mn) in illegal benefits the former president (2003-11) is said to have received from engineering company OAS. The firm reportedly spent that sum refurbishing a beachfront apartment for Lula in return for contracts with state-run oil company Petrobras.
In January, an appeals court in Porto Alegre unanimously upheld the conviction and increased the original sentence of nine years and six months to 12 years and one month.
Lula is expected to face other sentences in the coming months, as he is a defendant in nine different cases.
Lula's case is unique in Brazil as it represents the first time in which a candidate has been sentenced months before the election. His case must also be reviewed by the electoral court, which will decide if his workers' party candidacy can move forward while he's in jail. Experts think the chances of running for president while in jail are remote.
UNCLEAR ELECTION SCENARIO
Despite all legal challenges, recent polls show Lula as frontrunner, followed by ultra-right lawmaker Jair Bolsonaro of the conservative PSL party.
With the absence of Lula, analysts see no clear scenario ahead. "The left will probably be divided in the October election and fail to make a run-off vote, independently of how long Lula is in prison, though paradoxically the odds of a more unified leftist vote increase if Lula is in prison during the campaign," said political risk consulting firm Eurasia.
The local media was reporting that Lula's workers' party is considering former Bahia state governor Jacques Wagner or former São Paulo city mayor Fernando Haddad as potential presidential candidates in place of Lula.
Ciro Gomes, of leftist Democratic Labour Party, PDT, is expected to attract Lula's votes as well.
Meanwhile,centrist candidates, with a more market friendly approach, have failed to gain much ground.