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Brazil’s Lula defiant in five-hour testimony in corruption case

Former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva speaks after giving testimony to Federal Judge Sergio Moro in Curitiba on Wednesday.

Former president, questioned by Judge Moro over alleged graft, declares his accusers should be arrested ‘for lying’

RIO DE JANEIRO— Former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva struck a defiant note after testifying for five hours before a federal judge Wednesday, telling thousands of supporters that the corruption case against him has been big on suspense, but little on substance.

Minutes after emerging from face-to-face testimony with the federal judge overseeing a mammoth bribery investigation that has upended Latin America’s largest nation, Lula blasted the entire process and ridiculed prosecutors’ allegations that a construction company bought him an apartment as a kickback.

“After being massacred for two years, I was expecting to see a document showing that I bought the apartment,” Lula said. “But there was nothing, nothing at all.”

The hearing was closed to the press and not broadcast live, two of the many measures taken by Judge Sergio Moro and authorities in the southeastern city of Curitiba amid concerns of violence. Authorities began releasing portions of the video an hour after the session finished.

Thousands of supporters — both of Lula and Moro — were separated by a few kilometres, and hundreds of police in riot gear controlled several square blocks around the federal courthouse.

Lula, who is charged in four other corruption cases, is the highest-profile defendant in a sprawling corruption probe known as “Operation Car Wash” (Operação Lava Jato).

The investigation centres on construction firms that have already admitted to paying billions in kickbacks in return for lucrative contracts at state-run oil company Petrobras.

“Brazil’s most popular politician in the last 30 years is going before a judge like any regular citizen,” said Mauricio Santoro, a political scientist at the State University of Rio de Janeiro. “That is very rare in Brazilian politics.”

Lula, president between 2003 and 2010, testified about allegations that he received a beachfront apartment as a kickback from construction company OAS. Prosecutors also allege OAS carried out repairs on the apartment and paid to store Lula’s belongings.

‘Difficult’ quesTions

At the beginning of the court appearance, Moro assured Lula that he would not be remanded in custody, as some suspects in the investigation have been. Social media has been abuzz that this would be Lula’s fate, too.

A few minutes later, Moro said that he would have “difficult” questions for Lula.

“There are no difficult questions, sir,” Lula responded. “When one speaks the truth, there are no difficult questions.”

During his testimony, Lula lectured prosecutors, took swipes at his enemies and repeatedly claimed his innocence.

“I want to ask my accusers to take into account that you are very young, you have a long road before yourselves,” Lula said during his testimony, a direct critique of the young team of investigators leading the probe. “The prosecutor’s office was not made for that. Accusations need to be serious, well-grounded, not speculation.”

Moro, who has become a national hero to many Brazilians while overseeing the “Car Wash” investigation but also is accused of rampant bias in his rulings by others, said in his usually calm voice: “I have no personal issue with the former president. What will be decisive in the end is the collected evidence and the law.”

Former president’s testimony came after several attempts by his defence team to postpone the hearing. The last appeal, to the Supreme Tribunal of Justice, one of Brazil’s top courts, was denied about an hour before his testimony began.

Lula’s defence team argued it needed more time to analyse the case. The former president’s opponents countered that it was an excuse to prolong the matter. His defence team has also said it wants to call more than 80 witnesses.

Presidential run

Lula has reasons to drag the process out. He has signalled his interest in running for president in 2018, and leads in polls. He would be ineligible, however, if he should be convicted and the conviction was upheld on appeal.

Moro is known for reaching judgments relatively quickly and then denying the release of convicts while they appeal.

“Lula and those by his side got rich overnight,” said Surei Assad, a 57-year-old demonstrating in support of the investigation. “And then if you go to a public hospital, you will be horrified at the conditions” and lack of resources.

Since it was launched in March 2014, the investigation centred on state oil company Petrobras has led to the convictions of dozens of top politicians and business executives. Many more are being investigated in the kickback scheme, which prosecutors say involved more than US$3 billion in bribes over more than a decade. The probe has also spread beyond Brazil to several Latin American countries, including Argentina.

The event was being closely followed nationwide. Television stations transmitted live from various parts of Curitiba, and politicians of all stripes weighed in.

Lula “has been the victim of a media witch hunt, a massacre of accusations and more accusations,” Senator Fatima Bezerra, an ally of the former president, said in a statement. “Up until now, there is no proof” that he committed a crime.

The former president has started hinting at getting revenge for what he insists is nothing more than an effort to keep him from returning to the presidency.

“If they don’t arrest me soon, maybe one day I’ll arrest them for lying,” Silva told members of his Workers’ Party (PT) during a gathering last week.

Herald with AP, Reuters

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