CURITIBA, Brazil — Former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva walked out of jail on Friday, less than a day after the Supreme Court ruled that a person can be imprisoned only after all the appeals have been exhausted.
Hundreds of red-shirted supporters gathered outside the federal police building in southern city of Curitiba, cheered the popular, 74-year-old politician, whose release could rally a demoralized opposition.
Da Silva, who is appealing his conviction of corruption and money laundering in connection with the purchase of a beachfront apartment in Sao Paulo state, embraced his daughter, raised his fist to the sky, then made his way onto a stage where he was surrounded by his girlfriend and others.
"You have no idea the dimension of the significance of me being here with you," Da Silva told jubilant supporters, thanking individual union leaders and members of his leftist Workers' Party. "They didn't arrest a man. They tried to detain an idea. An idea doesn't disappear."
Da Silva, who is universally known as Lula, has been imprisoned since April 2018. It is not yet clear what political role he will seek now that he is free. He is barred from office while his appeals run their course, but former leader of the Workers' Party, better known in Brazil by its Portuguese acronym PT, remains a popular figure on the left. Still, he could find himself back in jail if his appeals don't go his way.
Political analysts believe Da Silva could rally an opposition weakened by corruption scandals, the impeachment of Da Silva's hand-picked successor, Da Silva's imprisonment and, more recently, a clobbering in the 2018 general elections.
In addition to promising to root out corruption and curb violence, far-right President Jair Bolsonaro ran a strong campaign on anti-Workers Party sentiment. He won the election with 55% of the vote and was sworn in on Jan. 1.
Da Silva, who governed from 2003 to 2010, had been favored to win the 2018 presidential election, but his conviction eventually prohibited him from running.
The former president has said that when free, he would travel around the country rallying opposition. Political analysts say he might not immediately enter into a direct confrontation with Bolsonaro, seeking instead to influence the next presidential election in 2022.
"The thing that makes Lula most dangerous to Bolsonaro is that Lula understands the long game," said James Bosworth, founder of Hxagon, a political risk analysis firm, stressing that the politician had run four times before being first elected in 2003.
"Lula is an old school union and political organizers who is going to take his time placing PT and other allies into positions to take advantage of Bolsonaro's weaknesses in the coming years," he said.
The former union leader is widely referred to as a "political animal". He presided over a period of rapid economic growth fueled by a commodities boom that expanded the country's middle class. His huge Bolsa Familia welfare program helped lift millions from poverty, and he left office with an approval rating above 80%. His impassioned oratory can just as easily elicit laughter or tears from those among his supporters.
For Claudio Couto, a professor in political science at the Fundacao Getulio Vargas university in Sao Paulo, Da Silva's release will have profound consequences on both sides of Brazil's political spectrum.
On the one hand, it will serve Bolsonaro's anti-PT and anti-Lula rhetoric, Couto said. "On the other hand, it ends the PT's 'Free Lula' rhetoric, and forces the party to take on another agenda."
Left-leaning supporters hailed the release of their standard-bearer, but want more and are now advocating for his name to be cleared.
While he is out of jail, the former leader remains entangled in several court cases.
Aside from the beachfront apartment, he was also sentenced by a lower court judge in a case centered around the ownership of a farmhouse in Atibaia, outside Sao Paulo. If he loses his appeals in either conviction, he could find himself imprisoned once again.
Da Silva has denied any wrongdoing and accuses Car Wash prosecutors and then-judge Sergio Moro, now Justice Minister, of political persecution.
In a separate Supreme Court debate, justices will decide whether Moro was biased when he delivered his rulings. In the meantime, Da Silva's conviction bars him from running for office.
Protests in major Brazilian cities have been scheduled for this weekend, aimed at showing support for Moro and his crusade to decrease crime and endemic corruption.