Lula jailing: Brazil judge ruling offers hope to ex-president


A supreme court judge in Brazil has issued a ruling that could see former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva released from jail.

Justice Marco Aurélio Mello said any convicted criminal who has an appeal pending in court should be freed until the legal process has been exhausted.

That would apply to 1,500 prisoners, including Lula who has been in prison since April on corruption charges.

His lawyers said they had already applied for his release.

But it is by no means certain 73-year-old Lula will be leaving prison any time soon.

It is up to the local court that convicted him to decide whether he should be released.

And the rest of the Supreme Court judges – all 10 of them – could decide to overturn Justice Mello’s ruling.

What did Justice Mello say?

The judge made the unexpected ruling on the issue of imprisoning people whose conviction has been upheld on first appeal – as is the case with Lula.

He said they should be allowed to remain out of prison until the final appeal had been heard, a legal process that could take years.

Justice Mello said a request for release should be made by the prisoner’s lawyer to the court that found them guilty.

Who is Justice Mello?

By Leonardo Rocha, BBC World Service Americas Editor

Marco Aurélio Mello was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1990 by his cousin, then President Fernando Collor de Mello.

He has since established a solid reputation in Brazil’s highest court, brushing off any allegations of nepotism.

Mr Mello has repeatedly sided with lawyers representing former President Lula on this matter, but there is no suggestion of a political or ideological bias behind his position.

He believes that Lula’s arrest, and that of many other prisoners, infringes basic principles of the Brazilian constitution.

Judge Mello says that anyone still appealing against their sentences should have the right to await in freedom all legal avenues are exhausted.

What has been the response?

Gleisi Hoffmann, head of the Workers Party that Lula founded, tweeted soon after the announcement that lawyers had already put in a request for the former president’s release.

The office of Brazil’s prosecutor general said it was studying the judge’s ruling and weighing its options, Reuters news agency reports.

The full panel of Supreme Court judges is deeply divided on the issue of whether convicted criminals remain free during the lengthy appeals process. They were due to meet in April next year to make a decision on the issue.

It is not clear if they will now meet sooner to consider Judge Mello’s unilateral ruling, which came on the day court goes into recess for the holidays.

It is also unclear whether Lula, who was president from 2003 to 2011, could be freed from prison before a ruling from the full panel of judges.

Why was Lula imprisoned?

Lula was convicted, in July 2017, of accepting a bribe and was sentenced to more than nine years in jail which, on appeal, was increased to more than 12.

He also faces other charges of money laundering, influence peddling and obstruction of justice.

The former president has always denied the allegations, claiming they are politically motivated.

He said they were designed to prevent him from running for president in October, amid polls showing him to be the frontrunner. The election was won by far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro, who takes office on 1 January 2019.

Brazilians are deeply divided over the imprisonment of their former president, so this news is being watched by everyone, the BBC’s South America correspondent Katy Watson reports.

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