Sao Paulo, Apr 4 (AFP) Thousands of Brazilians demonstrated in favor of prison for former president and election frontrunner Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva on the eve of a Supreme Court ruling on whether he should start serving a 12 year sentence for corruption.

Up to 20,000 people turned out after work in the country’s biggest city Sao Paulo, as well as a few thousand in Rio de Janeiro and smaller numbers in other cities.

They demanded that Lula begin his sentence and be barred from the October 7 presidential election in which the veteran leftist is leading in the polls, despite his legal problems.

“We want Brazil to be freed of this shameful corruption. Imprison Lula and let Brazil turn the page,” said Mara Massa, 67, at the protest in Sao Paulo, where the crowd chanted “No more Lula!” Smaller demonstrations in favor of the Workers’ Party founder also took place around the country.

The court showdown scheduled in the capital Brasilia on Wednesday has become a focal point for Brazil’s deeply divided electorate.

Lula, 72, was sentenced to 12 years and one month in prison after being convicted last year of accepting a seaside apartment as a bribe from a huge construction company seeking government contracts. He appealed in a lower court but lost.

Under current law, that means he should go immediately to prison, while conducting further appeals. However, Lula has asked the Supreme Court to grant him habeas corpus recourse, allowing him to remain free while pursuing those appeals.

The court is believed to be evenly split on the issue, so that one judge changing position would enough to secure Lula’s freedom — and boost his uphill bid for a third term in office.

If the court turns him down, he could face jail this week.

Those on the left who remember Lula for lifting tens of millions of people out of poverty during his two terms in 2003-2010 consider the threat of prison an attack on democracy.

Lula told a large crowd in Rio de Janeiro late Monday that he saw his fight as continuation of the struggle against a two-decade dictatorship that ended in 1985.

“I did not accept the military dictatorship and I will not accept this dictatorship of the prosecutors,” he said. (AFP) CK 04040738

This is published unedited from the PTI feed.