Brasília (AFP) - A majority of Brazil's top electoral court shot down late Friday the candidacy of popular leftist Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in the country's upcoming presidential vote, telling the jailed former leader he cannot participate in October's critical election.
The vote punctuated a gripping case that has roiled the country for months, with Lula, 72, remaining the top contender among Brazilians to lead Latin America's largest economy -- despite sitting behind bars since April for accepting a bribe.
In an extraordinary session the Superior Electoral Court dashed Lula's hopes after hours of debate, with the judges voting an overwhelming 6-1 against him.
Shortly thereafter, the former president's Workers' Party (PT) vowed to "fight with all means" to secure candidacy for the leftist icon.
"We will present all appeals before the courts for the recognition of the rights of Lula provided by law and international treaties ratified by Brazil," said the party in a statement.
"We will defend Lula in the streets, with the people, because he is a candidate of hope."
Lula's case was a last-minute addition to the court session. The result was expected, but the vote of Judge Edson Fachin, the second to speak, had momentarily rekindled suspense.
He relied on Lula's recent backing from the UN Human Rights Committee, which ruled that the former leader cannot be disqualified from the elections as his legal appeals are ongoing.
But the votes that followed torpedoed the former president's bid for a third term.
- Potential appeal -
Lula has been sentenced to 12 years in prison for accepting a luxury seaside apartment as a bribe from a construction firm.
He vehemently denies the accusations and has dismissed the charges as a political plot aimed at preventing him from standing in the elections.
The PT has stubbornly kept up its attempts to force Lula's name onto the ballot box, registering him as a candidate two weeks ago.
The court's decision would be open to appeal, magistrate Henrique Neves, a former electoral court member, told AFP.
He said either party would also be able to lodge an appeal with the Supreme Court over the constitutional nature of the electoral court's ruling.
The court decision dropped late in the night but before the spots of presidential hopefuls were set to broadcast.
- Adored by millions -
Lula was found guilty in July 2017 and then lost a first appeal in January.
Nonetheless, UN committee member Olivier de Frouville told AFP that Lula should be allowed to "organize and campaign, even from jail."
Brazil is technically obliged to abide by those findings, but the government in Brasilia described the committee's conclusions as "a recommendation" that is "not... legally binding."
Former trade union leader Lula is also involved in another five ongoing court cases.
But he is adored by millions of Brazilians due to the prosperity Brazil enjoyed under his leadership from 2003 to 2010.
He left office with a popularity rating of over 80 percent.
Despite the uncertainty over his ability to stand, Lula currently leads polls with more than double the share of his nearest challenger, the right-winger Jair Bolsonaro.
But the PT's second choice looks hopeless. Former Sao Paulo governor Fernando Haddad, who will stand if Lula is barred, commands little popular support.
However, the political chaos has had wider repercussions in the country with the currency losing 20 percent of its value against the dollar since January.
Lula's social media followers remain upbeat, though. The PT launched an appeal for support on Twitter, after which a hashtag translating as "Lula on the ballot box" quickly began trending.