Brazil prosecutors file corruption charges against Lula

Damian Wroclavsky

Brasília (AFP) - Federal prosecutors in Brazil filed corruption charges Wednesday against former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, describing the popular leftist as leader of a massive embezzlement ring at state oil company Petrobras.

The charges allege that Lula received the equivalent of 3.7 million reais ($1.1 million) in bribes.

Among the allegations are that Lula and his wife received a beachside apartment and upgrades to the property from a major construction company, OAS, which was one of the players in the Petrobras scheme.

The allegations are not new but they now go before Judge Sergio Moro, head of the Petrobras investigation, who will decide whether to accept them, forcing Lula's case to trial.

Prosecutors singled out Lula -- who was president during much of the time that Petrobras was being systematically fleeced by a network of corrupt executives and politicians -- as the scheme's mastermind.

Prosecutor Deltan Dallagnol called Lula, 70, the "supreme commander."

Lula has repeatedly declared his innocence and says that the prosecution is politically motivated.

His attorney called the allegations "farcical."

Polls show the founder of the leftist Workers' Party to be a favorite for returning to power in the next presidential elections in 2018.

In the scheme, Petrobras, Brazil's biggest state company, gave over-inflated contracts to other big firms, such as OAS and construction rival Odebrecht.

The pay-to-play network also involved high-ranking politicians who took bribes from the contractors, sometimes for their own gain and sometimes to fill party coffers to fund election campaigns.

Lula was president between 2003 and 2010, when the scheme was at its height. Since then, dozens of politicians and some of Brazil's richest businessmen have been charged or convicted.

The judicial campaign is hugely popular among Brazilians fed up with runaway corruption. However, it has dovetailed with a bitter impeachment battle in Brasilia that ended last month with the removal from office of president Dilma Rousseff, Lula's hand-picked successor.

Several close allies of her replacement, center-right leader Michel Temer, are now being investigated by the Petrobras prosecutors.

- Apartment suspicions -

The most concrete case against Lula has been based on his alleged ownership of a seaside apartment, which OAS reportedly gave to him and renovated.

Last month, police initiated the case against Lula, saying that he'd received benefits with the value of 2.4 million reals or about $743,000.

Lula, who came from deep poverty to become Brazil's most popular president, has railed against accusations that he could have been part of the corruption feeding trough.

He presided over an economic boom and was hailed internationally for social welfare policies that helped lift millions of people out of poverty.

He also was key in Rio de Janeiro's winning bid to host South America's first Olympics, which finished on August 21.

But with Rousseff being pushed out in a trial that convicted her of breaking budget laws, his legacy and power base is rapidly crumbling.

Even the Workers' Party, which dominated Brazilian politics for 13 years, is now in peril.

A conviction would dash Lula's hopes of running for a third term in office in the 2018 elections.

He has already been charged with attempting to obstruct investigations in the Petrobras case, in a probe dubbed "Operation Carwash."