RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Brazil's top court decided narrowly Thursday evening to give former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva temporary relief from prison on a corruption conviction until the justices meet again to decide the future of the left-leaning leader.
By a 6-5 vote, the court granted da Silva a safe-conduct that lasts until the end of the trial hearing his petition for habeas corpus. That session on the merits of the case is scheduled for April 4.
Lawyers for the former president sought the temporary relief because a warrant for the arrest of the once hugely popular politician could be issued by a lower federal court as soon as Monday.
Da Silva, who leads preference polls for October's presidential election, was convicted last year of trading favors with construction company OAS in return for the promise of a beachfront apartment. The conviction was upheld by a group of federal magistrates in January. The magistrates even added to the sentence, ruling that da Silva should spend 12 years and one month in prison.
According to Brazilian law, da Silva could begin serving his sentence because his conviction was upheld. He could continue to appeal to higher courts while in jail.
In an initial 7-4 vote Thursday, Brazil's top court decided that da Silva's petition was acceptable, delivering a blow to his adversaries who had expected the former president's habeas corpus request to be denied straight away.
For weeks, Chief Justice Carmen Lucia of the Supreme Federal Tribunal had not responded to da Silva's petition. But she changed course and scheduled Thursday's vote amid intense pressure, a sign of the weight that da Silva continues to wield despite a corruption conviction and several other cases pending against him.
Even a justice who is critical of the former president voted in his favor, while demonstrators calling for da Silva's imprisonment rallied outside the court in the capital of Brasilia.
"I am comfortable here because it is hard to say I have any sympathy for the Workers' Party," Justice Gilmar Mendes said, referring to da Silva's party.
Da Silva and his lawyers have always argued that the corruption conviction and all the cases against him amount to a witch hunt aimed at keeping him off the ballot this year.
Jose Roberto Batochio, da Silva's lawyer, argued that his client's constitutional rights would be violated if he wasn't allowed to remain free until there was a final verdict, a process that could take many years.
"Brazilians will not accept living under an authoritarian heel," said Batochio.
Attorney General Raquel Dodge disagreed, reminding justices that they set a precedent in 2016 when they voted that convicts could be jailed after an initial appeal was upheld, even if there were still more appeals pending or planned.Comment on this story
"Many who have studied that decision believe it's been important to cease with the impunity in the country," she said.
Da Silva is on tour in southern Brazilian cities in an attempt to keep his political power and swing public opinion against his arrest. Asked by journalists earlier on Thursday about the court's decision, he replied: "I don't act based on expectations."
Associated Press writer Peter Prengaman reported this story in Rio de Janeiro and AP writer Mario Savarese reported from Sao Paulo.