SAO PAULO — Former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva on Thursday blasted prosecutors who have accused him of masterminding a mammoth kickback scheme, saying they are politically motivated and simply want to keep him from running for office in 2018.
In an hour-long speech that often sounded more like a campaign event than a criminal defense, Silva said that opponents won’t be able to stop or his left-leaning Workers’ Party. As he has repeatedly insisted, Silva said that he was innocent and had nothing to do with a kickback scheme centered at state-oil company Petrobras.
“If they prove I was corrupt, I will turn myself in and be a prisoner,” said Silva, who twice broke into tears while surrounded by supporters at a Sao Paulo hotel.
After speaking, Silva did not take questions from reporters.
Federal prosecutors on Wednesday accused Silva of being the “maximum commander” of the kickback scheme at Petrobras.
However, the actual charges were much more limited in scope. Silva, his wife and five others were charged with money laundering and corruption.
Silva is accused of benefiting from renovations at a beachfront apartment in the coastal city of Guaruja in Sao Paulo state. The improvements, valued at about $750,000, were made by construction company OAS, one of those involved in the kickback scheme emanating from Petrobras. Prosecutors also believe Silva benefited from OAS paying the rent of a storage unit to house gifts that Silva received while president.
Silva says he has visited the penthouse but never owned it.
The so-called Car Wash investigation has led to the jailing of dozens of businessmen and top politicians, including several with close ties to the Workers’ Party. Prosecutors say that more than $2 billion in bribes were paid out in a graft scheme that shocked people in Brazil, a country that has long struggled with corruption.
Silva was president between 2003 and 2010, leaving office with approval ratings in the 80s. However, the Petrobras scandal, recession in Latin America’s largest economy and political turmoil in recent years have hurt his reputation.
Silva’s hand-picked successor, Dilma Rousseff, was removed from office by the Senate last month for illegally shifting funds between budgets. Rousseff and Silva have argued that the impeachment push also was politically motivated, a way to weaken their Workers’ Party.
“I’m proud to have created the most important left-wing party in Latin America,” said Silva.
The next step will be for Sergio Moro, the judge overseeing the probe, to decide whether Silva will stand trial.
In a separate case related to Petrobras, Silva will go on trial on charges of obstruction of justice.
Silva has long been trying to get the cases against him out of the jurisdiction of Moro, who has become famous the last couple years for locking up prominent figures.