SAO BERNARDO DO CAMPO (Brazil) • Controversial leftist icon Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the front runner in Brazil's election, yesterday left the building where he had been holed up for two days and attended a Catholic mass ahead of his expected arrest.
Lula, 72, got a rock star's welcome from thousands of leftist supporters surrounding the metalworkers' union building in Sao Bernardo do Campo, where the former president had defied the authorities.
He had been ordered to surrender on Friday and begin a 12-year sentence. But to the delight of his fervent followers, Lula skipped the deadline, remaining shut up in the building.
Brazil Supreme Court Justice Edson Fachin yesterday rejected the latest plea by Lula to suspend the order by a lower court judge for him to start serving his prison sentence.
His legal team, which argued that they had not exhausted procedural appeals before the judge issued an order for Lula to turn himself in to authorities, had already lost a last-minute appeal on Friday to the country's top appeals court.
The unfolding drama mixes Lula's charismatic political style, the country's epic struggle against corruption, and the outcome of October's presidential elections - where, despite his legal problems, Lula remains by far the most popular contender.
Finally emerging yesterday, wearing a dark blue T-shirt and looking confident, Lula waved to the crowd and made the sign of the cross on a platform where he stood next to several priests. "Free Lula, free Lula!" the crowd chanted.
The impromptu mass in the street was to commemorate Lula's late wife Marisa Leticia, who died last year and would now be turning 68.
But it was also a reminder to supporters of Lula's long and often emotional backstory, rising as he did from humble beginnings as an uneducated, desperately poor shoeshine boy to a two-term president (2003-2010) and, at his peak, one of the world's most popular politicians.
For his followers, the mass appeared likely to become an elaborate farewell before Lula was taken to Curitiba, headquarters of Brazil's giant "Car Wash" anti-graft probe, which has claimed him as its biggest scalp. Brazilian media widely reported that Lula was due to turn himself in after the Mass.
Lula was convicted last year of taking a luxury apartment as a kickback from a big construction company.
He lost a lower court appeal in January and saw his sentence increased from nine to 12 years.
The endgame now appears to have started. Lula's lawyers were in negotiations with police over the place and timing of the arrest, allies of the disgraced leader said.
To his Workers' Party faithful, Lula is a victim of an out-of-control judiciary preventing him from returning to power.
They remember him for a presidency that saw tens of millions lifted from poverty and Brazil rise on the world stage. However, Lula's imminent arrest is being celebrated by many other Brazilians.
The "Car Wash" probe, which has revealed systemic, high-level embezzlement and bribery throughout business and politics over the last four years, is wildly popular.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS