AP Explains: Brazil judge orders ex-leader Da Silva freed

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A supporter of Brazil's former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva holds up signs that reads in Portuguese "Free Lula," left, and "Women for Lula free." outside the Federal Police headquarters where the former leader is imprisoned in Curitiba, Brazil, Friday, Nov. 8, 2019. Da Silva's lawyers have begun legal procedures requesting his release from prison, following a Supreme Court decision late Thursday that a person can be imprisoned only after all appeals to higher courts have been exhausted. Da Silva has been detained since April 2018 after being convicted of corruption. (AP Photo/Leo Correa)

SAO PAULO – Former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has left a Curitiba prison, less than a day after the Supreme Court ruled that a person can be imprisoned only after all the appeals have been exhausted. The court ruling also stands to free other inmates who are appealing convictions, including politicians and executives jailed in a sprawling corruption investigation known as Car Wash, or Lava Jato in Portuguese. The probe was praised for working to dismantle Brazil's culture of impunity, but it has faced growing criticism for allegedly being used to settle political scores.



The probe began in March 2014 with an investigation into a Brasilia gas station related to black market money-changing. It wound up unearthing kickbacks from billions of dollars in construction contracts awarded by state-run oil-giant Petrobras. Much of those illicit funds went to party coffers and politicians' pockets.

Brazil's long history of high-level corruption seemed to be on the defensive thanks to the Car Wash task force of prosecutors and judges. Defendants were kept in jail while awaiting trial, a measure that helped secure plea bargains.



The former president was convicted of corruption and money laundering in connection with the purchase of a beachfront apartment in the seaside city of Guaruja, in Sao Paulo state. Prosecutors successfully argued the apartment was promised as a kickback from a construction company. Its former CEO said the apartment was reserved for Da Silva.

The 3,197-square-foot (297-square-meter) apartment in the Solaris complex faces Asturias Beach, one of the busiest in Guaruja.

Da Silva appealed his conviction but it was upheld last year, and he was put behind bars in April 2018. In line with a Supreme Court determination in 2016, criminals whose convictions were upheld on appeal could begin serving their sentences.

The former president is now appealing to higher courts. He maintains that he was framed by his political opponents.



Justices ruled in a 6-5 vote that defendants can only be jailed after they've exhausted all their appeals in the country's four-level system, reversing their 2016 determination. Critics had argued the court's prior ruling violated Brazil's constitution, which states no one can be considered guilty until due process is concluded.



Da Silva's case is the most prominent both because of his political stature and the fact he has appeals pending in both of Brazil's top courts. The decision could also free José Dirceu, a former chief-of staff in Da Silva's administration, and other prominent politicians caught up in the Car Wash corruption probe.

The ruling also affects cases unrelated to corruption. There are almost 5,000 inmates still appealing convictions. However, most analysts say the decision will not benefit violent criminals as judges have already issued preventative detentions in their cases, meaning a sentence is not required to jail them.

Among others who may be released is DJ Rennan da Penha, a popular funk musician who was convicted for association with crime. Activists also want the release of scavenger Rafael Braga, who was arrested during protests in 2013 for carrying bottles of detergent that could allegedly be used as weapons.



Da Silva walked out of prison on Friday after a judge told federal police to comply with a release order "with urgency."



Not necessarily. He could exhaust his appeals on either of his current convictions, and there are other cases against him in progress. Further, Congress could change the constitution to alter rules dictating when convicted criminals begin serving their sentences.