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Tensions High as Former Brazilian President Lula to Testify in Corruption Case | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Members of Workers Party attend a march before former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s testimony to federal judge Sergio Moro, in Curitiba, Brazil, May 9, 2017. (Reuters)

Former Brazilian President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva is expected to appear before Judge Sergio Moro on Wednesday as he faces five criminal cases against him, part of the biggest corruption probe in the country’s history.

When Lula and Moro meet for the first time in a courtroom, the contrasts – and the stakes – could hardly be greater.

One is the country’s most popular president ever and the front-runner in next year’s election – a former union leader who still whips up crowds with his fiery and folksy oratory. The other, a soft-spoken law professor who represents Lula’s main obstacle to power.

The legacy and political future of Brazil’s first working-class president are on the line. While denying any wrongdoing, Lula and his lawyers have turned his defense into an attack on Moro himself, arguing the judge’s track record in overseeing the graft probe has undermined his impartiality. Lula’s supporters are traveling from across Brazil to the southern city of Curitiba to protest outside the court.

Pollster Datafolha found Moro was one of the few public figures who could beat Lula in the 2018 presidential race – though Moro denies he will enter politics. The 44-year-old judge has avoided addressing the electoral impact of his decisions and discouraged portrayals of him as David to Lula’s political Goliath.

Lula’s testimony is just one more step in a three-year-old operation, insists Moro, who has kept lecturing public university students on criminal law as he runs the probe.

“I’m a little concerned by this climate of confrontation, these heightened expectations about something that may be totally banal,” the judge said at a public event on Monday, regarding this week’s hearing.

Moro has already sentenced dozens of businessmen and money launderers for a bribery scheme paying billions of dollars to politicians in return for public contracts, political favors and deals with state firms such as oil giant Petrobras.

Office holders in Brasilia must be tried by the Supreme Court, so prosecution has moved more slowly against alleged beneficiaries in the ruling Brazilian Democratic Movement Party and the Workers Party, which ran the country under Lula and his successor Dilma Rousseff from 2003 to 2016.

Prosecutors say Lula masterminded the scheme during his eight years in office, but Wednesday’s hearing focuses on whether he traded influence for the refurbishing of a beach condo. On Monday, Moro began hearing testimony in a second trial against Lula, regarding 12 million reais ($4 million) of land bought by a construction firm to be used for his institute.

A conviction in either case, if upheld in an appeals court before elections in October next year, would bar him from seeking office.

While Lula’s allies are calling for tens of thousands of partisans to convene in Curitiba, Moro posted a Facebook video discouraging a rival march by supporters of the investigation.

Yet even that call for restraint stirred controversy.

“Judge Moro, who ought to be impartial, is speaking directly to his supporters. That is not normal in a democratic system. In a democracy, politicians have supporters and adversaries – not judges,” said Lula attorney Cristiano Zanin in a video response.

The exchange underscored that while both Lula and Moro face public scrutiny, the judge may have more to lose if the interrogation devolves into a contentious exchange.

A courtroom spat would stoke complaints from Lula supporters who call the investigation a political witch hunt and bolster his lawyers’ demands that another judge try the case.

Authorities in the Brazilian city of Curitiba said last week that supporters and opponents of Lula will be kept apart when he is scheduled to testify before Moro.

Law enforcement officials added they are expecting large groups of demonstrators and to avoid confrontations they will be restricted to different parts of the city.