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PORTO ALEGRE, Brazil – Former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva is charging ahead with his plans to run for Brazil's presidency again, even after an appeals court unanimously upheld a graft conviction against him and added years to his prison sentence.
Da Silva, who was wildly popular as president in 2003-2010 and has been leading the polls for October's presidential election, was defiant in the face of Wednesday's court ruling. The case alleged that while president, da Silva traded favors in return for the promise of a beachfront apartment. It is just one of a series of graft allegations against him amid a mushrooming corruption scandal that has taken down top politicians and business executives in Latin America's largest nation.
"I am not worried about whether I will be a candidate for president or not," da Silva told a crowd of supporters in Sao Paulo on Wednesday night. "I want (the judges and prosecutors) to ask for forgiveness for the quantity of lies they told about me."
His Workers' Party declared its intention to register him as its candidate in August and scheduled a meeting for Thursday to discuss plans.
"We will fight in defense of democracy in all forums, in the judiciary and mainly on the streets," party chairwoman Gleisi Hoffmann said in a statement. "If some think the story ends with today's decision, they are very wrong because we do not surrender before injustice."
Da Silva's defense team said the decision by the three-judge panel was political and denounced the ruling as a "farce." They vowed to take the case to Brazil's Supreme Court and even the United Nations.
That raised the specter of months of uncertainty ahead of the vote and even potentially unrest.
Under Brazilian law, a criminal conviction that has been upheld on appeal makes the person ineligible to run for office, although da Silva still has several avenues to still get on the October ballot by appealing to higher courts. Ultimately, the country's Supreme Electoral Tribunal makes decisions about candidacies, and the Supreme Court could also weigh in on the case.
Oscar Vilhena Vieira, dean of the law school at Fundacao Getulio Vargas university, said it was likely da Silva would eventually be barred from running, but maybe not until weeks before the election.
"We will have a difficult year, but I think in the end the election will take place and people will accept its results," he said on a conference call with reporters organized by the Wilson Institute in Washington,
In deeply polarized Brazil, the case is part of a larger narrative, with supporters and detractors of da Silva offering their own interpretations. Da Silva and his supporters say the other corruption charges brought against him are an attempt to keep him from returning to office. They argue it is part of a conspiracy by Brazil's elite to keep out a president like da Silva who focuses on the poor and levels the playing field in one of the world's most unequal nations.
Detractors note that da Silva and his left-leaning Workers' Party were running the country while a widespread corruption scheme siphoned billions from state oil company Petrobras and helped Latin America's largest economy fall into its worst recession in decades.
Tensions were high Wednesday as the judges met in Porto Alegre, a southern city. Helicopters buzzed the skies, police patrolled on horses and sharpshooters took up positions outside while the judges spent the morning hearing arguments over da Silva's conviction on corruption and money laundering charges. Prosecutors argued da Silva was promised a beachfront apartment, owned by construction company OAS, in exchange for contracts. In plea bargain testimony, the company's CEO said the apartment was slated for da Silva.
Da Silva and his lawyers have always argued the case defied logic, saying he never owned the apartment.
In the end, all three judges voted to uphold the conviction and lengthen the jail time to 12 years and one month, an increase of more than two years from the sentence levied in July.
"Nobody can be absolved just because he's powerful," Judge Leandro Paulen said, referring to da Silva's large following.
Experts said da Silva was unlikely to be jailed while pursuing further appeals.
Over the last several years, the "Car Wash" corruption investigation has landed dozens of Brazil's elite, from businessmen to politicians, in jail. Several construction companies formed a de facto cartel that decided which would get inflated government contracts that included billions of dollars in bribes and kickbacks to politicians, company officials and political parties in the form of campaign contributions.
Associated Press writer Mauricio Savarese reported this story in Porto Alegre and AP writer Sarah DiLorenzo reported from Sao Paulo.