Brasilia: Former Brazilian leader Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, a top contender to win next year's presidential election, was convicted on corruption charges on Wednesday and sentenced to nearly 10 years in prison.
The ruling marked a stunning fall for Lula, one of the country's most popular politicians, and a serious blow to his chances of a political comeback. The former union leader, who won global praise for policies to reduce stinging inequality in Brazil, faces four more corruption trials and will remain free on appeal.
The verdict represented the highest-profile conviction yet in a sweeping corruption investigation that for over three years has rattled Brazil, revealing a sprawling system of graft at top levels of business and government.
Judge Sergio Moro found Lula, 71, guilty of accepting 3.7 million reais ($1.2 million) worth of bribes from engineering firm OAS SA, the amount of money prosecutors said the company spent refurbishing a beach apartment for Lula in return for his help winning contracts with state oil company Petroleo Brasileiro.
Federal prosecutors have accused Lula, Brazil's first working-class president from 2003 to 2011, of masterminding a long-running corruption scheme that was uncovered in a probe into kickbacks around Petrobras.
Lula's legal team said in an emailed statement that he was innocent and they would appeal.
"For over three years, Lula has been subject to a politically motivated investigation," they wrote. "No credible evidence of guilt has been produced, and overwhelming proof of his innocence blatantly ignored."
Lula's lawyer Cristiano Martins has repeatedly accused judge Moro of being biased against his client, which Moro strongly denies.
Moro wrote in his ruling that he "took no personal satisfaction in this conviction, quite to the contrary."
"It's lamentable that a president of the republic is criminally convicted," Moro said. "No matter how important you are, no one is above the law."
The Brazilian real extended gains following the decision and reached its strongest in two months. The benchmark Bovespa stock index rose to a session high. Investors fear that another Lula presidency would mean a return to more state-directed and less business friendly economic policies.
Lula would be barred from office if his guilty verdict is upheld by an appeals court, which is expected to take at least eight months to rule.
If he cannot run, political analysts say Brazil's left would be thrown into disarray, forced to rebuild and somehow find a leader who can emerge from the immense shadow that Lula has cast on Brazilian politics for three decades.