Brazil’s ex-President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has been cleared of corruption by a Supreme Court judge, opening a path to a possible run for the presidency in 2022.
Lula, a leftwing icon to many, was freed in 2019 after 18 months in jail.
He was convicted following an investigation, Operation Car Wash, into a huge bribery scandal which ensnared politicians and business leaders.
But Supreme Court Justice Edson Fachin annulled Lula’s convictions.
He said in a statement that a court in the southern city of Curitiba did not have the right to try the four cases, which should instead be heard by a federal court in the capital, Brasilia.
The ruling, which still has to be considered by the full Supreme Court, restores Lula’s political rights, unless his convictions are reinstated.
“This is recognition that we were right throughout this long legal battle,” his lawyers said in a statement.
Lula, president from 2003 to 2010, could theoretically run against President Jair Bolsonaro. The right-wing incumbent is thought likely to seek re-election next year.
Giving his reaction outside the presidential palace, Mr Bolsonaro accused the Supreme Court judge of bias.
Lula, now 75, was jailed in 2018 for 12 years for receiving a beachside apartment from an engineering company implicated in the Operation Car Wash investigation. This was later reduced to eight years and 10 months.
In 2019, he was given a further 12 years in jail for accepting bribes in the form of renovation work at a country house from construction companies.
But in the same year, he was freed after the Supreme Court ruled that defendants should not be jailed until their appeal process has been exhausted.
Lula had denied all the charges, saying they were aimed at preventing him from running for president again in 2018.
A lot could happen between now and 2022 – no more so than in Brazil where courts famously go back and forth on the finer detail – but if Lula does run in 2022, it’s set to be an explosive campaign – one that many experts feel has kicked off today.
Jair Bolsonaro is expected to run for re-election and if Lula faces him, it would divide the country much like the 2018 elections. Although Lula couldn’t run in the end, Bolsonaro was propelled to power by many Brazilians’ hatred of him and his Workers’ Party.
Politics was – and still is – polarised. While Lula remains very popular, he’s seen by his detractors as a symbol of corruption at the very top. The difference this time of course is Covid-19 – in recent months, Jair Bolsonaro has been heavily criticised for his handling of the pandemic and the economy is struggling – that might alter his chances of victory.
No matter what, the two men are set to dominate politics in the months to come.
The Operation Car Wash investigation began in March 2014.
It centred on allegations that executives at the state oil company Petrobras had accepted bribes from construction firms in return for awarding them contracts at inflated prices.
Lula’s Workers’ Party was engulfed in the scandal following allegations it took some of these funds to pay off politicians and buy their votes and to help with political campaigns.
An opinion poll conducted by Ipec on Sunday suggested Lula would gain more votes than Mr Bolsonaro – the only politician to do so.