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Leo Correa
Brazil's former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva greets supporters during his presidential campaign rally with members of his Workers Party and leaders of other left-wing parties in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Monday, April 2, 2018. Despite a conviction on corruption charges that could see him barred from running, da Silva is the front runner in that race. (AP Photo/Leo Correa)

RIO DE JANEIRO — The possible imprisonment of former Brazilian leader Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva — who leads presidential election polls — caused rising tensions Wednesday after the army commander appeared to tweet subtle support for da Silva's incarceration and authorities in several cities braced for demonstrations for and against the ex-president.

The country's top court began reviewing a petition by da Silva to stay out of prison while he continues to appeal a conviction for corruption. The decision could radically alter October's presidential election and even affect stability in Latin America's largest nation.

Gen. Eduardo Villas Boas posted two Tuesday night tweets that many interpreted as a form of pressure on the 11 justices on the Supreme Federal Tribunal and a veiled threat of intervention. Such concerns are taken seriously in a country that experienced a 1964-1985 military dictatorship.

"In Brazil's current situation, it's worth asking our institutions and the people who is really thinking about what is best for the country and future generations, and who is only worried about their personal interests?" he wrote in one tweet.

In a second tweet, Boas wrote that he shared people's anxiousness and "repudiated impunity."

O Globo, one of the country's leading dailies, criticized the comments, saying in a Wednesday editorial that a military chief should "not be opining over judicial and political questions."

In a statement to O Globo, Gen. Joaquim Silva e Luna, the defense minister, said that Boas' intention was to assure people that force would not be used.

Da Silva, who was once wildly popular after his two terms as president from 2003 to 2010, has become a polarizing figure amid a massive corruption scandal that has roiled Brazil the last several years and made average citizens furious with the political class.

Da Silva was convicted last year of helping a construction company get sweetheart contracts in exchange for the promise of a beachfront apartment. The conviction was handed down by Judge Sergio Moro, who is presiding over cases involving the so-called "Car Wash" investigation.

Moro is hailed as a hero by many while detractors consider him a partisan hit man.

Da Silva has always maintained his innocence, saying this case as well as several other corruption charges that have yet to be tried are attempts to keep him off the presidential ballot. Despite the legal troubles that have angered some Brazilians, da Silva leads preference polls to return to office.

However, Da Silva's denials received a blow in January, when an appeals court upheld the conviction involving the beachfront apartment. The three reviewing magistrates even lengthened the sentence to 12 years and one month.

While da Silva, known simply as "Lula" to Brazilians, has further appeals available, he could be forced under Brazilian law to begin serving his sentence, which Moro and the other judges have ordered.

At this point, da Silva's last and best hope of staying out of jail — and keeping his re-election hopes alive — is the Supreme Federal Tribunal. Being jailed, particularly if his sentence is not overturned by a higher court before the ballots are set in August, would all but doom his chances at running for re-election.

Da Silva's lawyers argue their client has a constitutional right to stay out of jail until all appeals are exhausted.

However, in an unrelated case in 2016, the Supreme Federal Tribunal disagreed with that logic, ruling that a convict could start serving a sentence after a first appeal was denied.

How the justices will rule this time is anybody's guess, as the case involves a former president who continues to have a wide following in a deeply polarized nation. Throughout all the legal battles, da Silva has been campaigning nationwide, criticizing detractors and promising not to give up. Last week, while campaigning in the southern state of Parana, where Moro convicted him, two buses in his caravan where hit with bullets. Nobody was hurt.

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Chief Justice Carmen Lucia initially did not respond to da Silva's petition. But a few weeks ago she changed course amid intense pressure, calling a court session that was then postponed until after the Easter holiday.

With emotions running high, earlier this week Lucia urged Brazilians to calmly accept whatever was decided.

"We live in times of intolerance and intransigence against people and institutions," she said. "For this very reason, this is a time when one must ask for serenity. Serenity so that ideological differences are not a source of social disorder."