Brazilian police question ex-president in corruption probe

Latin America

FILE – In this March 30, 2015, file photo, Brazil’s former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva attends an extraordinary Worker’s Party leaders’ meeting in Sao Paulo, Brazil. (AP Photo/Andre Penner, File)

Brazilian police pulled former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in for questioning on Friday and searched homes and other buildings connected to the leader and his family, drawing the country’s most towering political figure closer into the sprawling corruption case centered on the oil giant Petrobras. Lula left police office after 3 hours’ questioning according to the latest report.

Police turned up early Friday morning at addresses belonging to Silva, including his residence near Sao Paulo and the Instituto Lula, his nonprofit organization, police said in a news conference in the southern city of Curitiba, where the Petrobras probe is centered.

Acting on a warrant that required Silva to answer questions in the probe, he was taken to the federal police station at Sao Paulo’s Congonhas airport.

The Instituto Lula’s spokesman, Jose Chrispiniano, said Silva’s questioning had wrapped up after nearly four hours. The GloboNews television network broadcast blurry images of a person who appeared to be Silva stepping out of the building and into a black car that appeared to leave the airport premises.

“No one is exempt from investigation in this country,” said public prosecutor Carlos Fernando dos Santos Lima. “Anyone in Brazil is subject to be investigated when there are indications of a crime.”

Lima and police and tax officials said they were looking into 30 million Brazilian reais ($8.12 million) in payments for speeches and donations to the Instituto Lula by top construction firms — crucial players in the Petrobras corruption scheme. They were also looking into whether renovations and other work at a country house and beachfront apartment used by Silva and his family constituted favors in exchange for political benefit.

In a statement, the Lula Institute said “nothing justified” the morning’s events and denied any wrongdoing.

“The Instituto Lula reaffirms that Lula never hid patrimony or received undue advantages either before, during or after governing the country,” the statement said, referring to the former leader by the nickname.

Silva himself last week denounced suggestions of personal corruption, accusing the media and opposition of spreading “lies, leaks and accusations of criminality.”

Clashes broke out between Silva’s supporters and detractors outside the ex-president’s apartment in Sao Bernardo do Campo and Brazil’s GloboNews network showed crowds at Congonhas airport as well, with several hundred Workers’ Party supporters chanting pro-Silva slogans.

Lima said the decision to take Silva in for questioning was made for security reasons, to avoid demonstrations and other obstructions.

Silva, a plainspoken former union leader, was among the most revered leaders in Brazilian history when he left office in 2010, leaving the post in the hands of his chosen successor, Rousseff. He has made no secret of his continued presidential aspirations, saying he was mulling a run for the office in 2018.

Silva’s Workers’ Party reacted angrily, saying in a Twitter post, “we all must react now,” with a hashtag reading “LulaPoliticalPrisoner.” The party later removed the hashtag, but has renewed calls for sympathizers to take to the streets in support of Silva.

In a video address, the party’s president, Rui Falcao, denounced Friday’s actions as “a political spectacle that shows what the true character of this operation is.

“It’s not about combatting corruption but simply to hit the Workers’ Party, President Lula and the government of President Dilma,” Falcao said.

The summons of Silva also brings the sprawling probe closer to Rousseff, though the once-close allies have visibly distanced themselves in recent months.

While Rousseff herself has not been accused of wrongdoing in the Petrobras probe, she is facing impeachment proceedings in Congress for her government’s alleged use of the country’s pension fund to shore up budget gaps. Rousseff denies the allegations.

During the press conference the officials said police were carrying out 44 judicial orders as part of the broader Petrobras probe, known as “Car Wash.”

Petrobras scandal has already ensnared top businessmen and heavyweight politicians from the governing Workers’ Party as well as the opposition. On Thursday, the Supreme Court allowed corruption charges in the case to be brought against Eduardo Cunha, a top opposition figure and speaker of the lower house of Congress.

Prosecutors say more than $2 billion was paid in bribes by businessmen to obtain Petrobras contracts. Investigators also have said that some of the money made its way to several political parties, including the Workers’ Party.

A lathe operator at a metal factory who entered politics as a labor union leader, Silva was widely seen as representing the common man, and his ascension to the country’s highest office was hailed in a country where politics have long been dominated by the elite. During his two terms in office, from 2003-2010, Silva presided over years of galloping economic growth, which also saw the country’s chronic inequality fall, with tens of millions of poor Brazilians entering the ranks of the middle class.

Despite a votes-for-bribes scandal during his presidency that took down his chief-of-staff, Silva left office with record high popularity levels. His hand-picked successor, Rousseff, handily won the presidency, and Silva was widely seen taking a guiding role in her governance.

Both of their popularity rates tumbled as Brazil slipped into its worst recession in decades and the Car Wash investigation spread, ensnaring key Workers’ Party legislators. Rousseff has seen her approval ratings dip into the single-digits, though they’ve rebounded slightly of late. Silva’s ratings have also slid since allegations against him emerged against him in the press.

Story by the Associated Press.