A demonstrator wearing a mask against the spread of the new coronavirus holds a sign that reads in Portuguese "Justice for Lula," in reference to former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, during a protest commemorating the Supreme Court's deci

Brazil's Supreme Court throws out corruption convictions against former President Lula

Several small, celebratory demonstrations sprang up across Brazil on Monday night after the news broke that a Supreme Court judge threw out three corruption convictions against former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

The World

A demonstrator wearing a mask against the spread of the new coronavirus holds a sign that reads in Portuguese "Justice for Lula," in reference to former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, during a protest commemorating the Supreme Court's decision to suspend proceedings against Lula, in front of the Supreme Court building in Brasília, Brazil, March 8, 2021.

Eraldo Peres/AP

In São Paulo, roughly a dozen women on the iconic Paulista Avenue chanted through their masks, “Get out Bolsonaro,” while holding up a homemade banner that read: “I want Lula [for] president in 2022.”

A number of small, celebratory demonstrations like this one sprang up across Brazil on Monday night after the news broke that a Supreme Court judge threw out three corruption convictions against former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

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Lula, as he's known, is the country’s historic labor leader who is credited with lifting millions out of poverty during his two terms as president between 2003 and 2011. The court's move means his political rights have been returned. Now, Lula is free to run for president next year, if he chooses, which supporters of his Workers' Party see as a hopeful sign. 

Justice Edson Fachin annulled Lula’s convictions on the grounds that the presiding court in Curitiba did not have the jurisdiction to try him.

Lula’s defense team had been arguing this very point for roughly five years. In a statement, the team said it welcomed the ruling, but added that this move “doesn’t erase the irreparable harm.”

Lula served 580 days in jail for those convictions.

When Lula was jailed in April 2018, in Curitiba, he was the front-runner for that year’s presidential election. His supporters called his conviction a witch hunt and a tool used by political elites to block him from returning to office.

Just two years before, his former chief of staff, President Dilma Rousseff, was impeached, which many called a congressional coup. They believed Lula could set the country straight.

His supporters set up an around-the-clock vigil just outside the jail. Lula came to be considered one of the world’s most high-profile political prisoners. He was visited by Nobel Prize winners, former presidents and notables like Noam Chomsky.

In August of 2018, thousands marched in the capital Brasília to deliver Lula’s candidacy to the electoral court. But he was blocked from running the next month.

President Jair Bolsonaro would cruise to victory in October. 

Why this ruling, now? 

“What allowed Supreme Court Justice Fachin to take this decision was the discredit, the demoralization and the delegitimization of the Car Wash investigation.”

Talita Tanscheit, Federal University of Rio de Janeiro

“What allowed Supreme Court Justice Fachin to take this decision was the discredit, the demoralization and the delegitimization of the Car Wash investigation,” said Talita Tanscheit, a political scientist at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro.

Related: Calls for Bolsonaro’s impeachment intensify  

Operation Car Wash was the country’s landmark, anti-corruption investigation that, for seven years, rocked Brazil’s political scene. It ended last month, but during its time, it issued 1,400 search and seizure warrants and convicted almost 280 people, including top politicians.

Sérgio Moro was the star judge and the man who convicted Lula.

But for the past two years, leaked Telegram messages have revealed Moro’s bias against Lula, the Workers' Party and the left. They also show the judge guiding prosecutors to help their case for conviction. Moro would go on to join President Bolsonaro as his justice minister.

Last month, the Supreme Court ruled that Lula’s lawyers could use these leaked messages in his defense. Despite the annulment of Lula’s convictions, the top court decided Tuesday that it would still adjudicate over Moro’s bias, in a ruling that could have disastrous consequences for the former judge’s political career and his presidential aspirations.

During the session, Supreme Court Justice Gilmar Mendes called the Car Wash operation “the biggest judicial scandal” in the country's history.

“This was the biggest crisis that has befallen the Brazilian judiciary,” he said. “This calls for serious changes.” 

Many more questions 

Brazil’s prosecutor general is expected to appeal Justice Fachin’s decision to throw out the cases against Lula. Fachin says they should be retried by a federal court in Brasilia. But that will take time, and it’s unclear if they’ll have any traction in a less politicized court.

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But for many, the focus is on the fact that Lula has regained his political right to run for office, and the entire country suddenly has its eyes set on next year’s presidential election.

Lula has the highest approval (50%) and the lowest rejection (44%) of any of the top 10 presidential hopefuls for next year. He’s a full 12 points ahead of Bolsonaro, who’s been hit hard lately by the failing economy and his dismal response to the pandemic.

But Bolsonaro eschewed those ratings, telling reporters in Brasília on Monday, “Lula’s Workers' Party government was catastrophic. I don’t believe that the Brazilian people want a candidate like Lula in 2022, or to even consider the possibility of his election.”

It's impossible to say what twists and turns will unfold in the next year.

“Brazilian politics is a box of surprises, so we need to move cautiously. But [this ruling] is good news for the left, very bad for Bolsonaro and very bad for the traditional right.”

Talita Tanscheit, Federal University of Rio de Janeiro

“Brazilian politics is a box of surprises, so we need to move cautiously,” Tanscheit said. “But [this ruling] is good news for the left, very bad for Bolsonaro and very bad for the traditional right.”

Still, it’s not exactly clear-cut. Political scientist Luciano da Ros says that the ruling may even help Bolsonaro to galvanize his supporters who are motivated by their hatred for Lula and the Workers' Party.

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“The decision gives Bolsonaro the ability to position himself as the leader of the fight against the Workers' Party in Brazil,” he said.

But, for now, one thing is certain. Lula is free to run in 2022. Despite the pandemic, the rising number of cases and the more than 266,000 dead, many see hope on the horizon for the first time in a long while.

“We again have hope of a better Brazil with Lula free and most importantly, absolved,” said Gerson Mattos Shatkoski, a young Lula supporter who dropped everything in 2018 to join the vigil in defense of the former president. “Free Lula 2022.”