Former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva struck a defiant note after testifying for five hours 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, Silva 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,” Silva 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 Silva and Moro — were separated by a few miles (kilometers), and hundreds of police in riot gear controlled several square blocks around the federal courthouse.
“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.”
Silva, 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 did repairs to the apartment and paid to store Silva’s belongings. The former president denies the charges, along with those related to several other cases of corruption against him.
During his testimony, Silva lectured prosecutors, took swipes at his enemies and repeatedly claimed his innocence.
“I want to ask my accusers to take into the account that you are very young, you have a long road before yourselves,” Silva said during his testimony, a direct critique of the young team of investigators leading the probe. “The prosecutors’ 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, kept a respectful tone but also pushed back against Silva.
“I have no personal issue with the former president,” Moro said in his usually calm voice. “What will be decisive in the end is the collected evidence and the law.”
Silva’s testimony came after several attempts by his defense 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.
Silva’s defense team argued it needed more time to analyze the case. Silva’s opponents countered that it was an excuse to prolong the matter. The defense has also said it wants to call more than 80 witnesses.
Silva, who Brazilians simply call Lula, has reason to drag the process out. He has signaled 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 Car Wash 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 centered 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 $3 billion in bribes over more than a decade. The probe has also spread beyond Brazil to several Latin American countries.
The event was being closely followed nationwide. Television stations transmitted live from various parts of Curitiba, and politicians of all stripes weighed in.
Silva “has been the victim of a media witch hunt, a massacre of accusations and more accusations,” Sen. Fatima Bezerra, an ally of the former president, said in a statement. “Up until now, there is no proof” that he committed a crime.
In a sign of the pressure surrounding Silva’s case, last week Moro posted a video in which he asked supporters of the investigation not to come out. During a public appearance this week, he also played down the hearing, saying that it was procedural and that no decision would be reached Wednesday.
For his part, Silva 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