BRASILIA/CURITIBA, Brazil (Reuters) -- Brazil’s leftist former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva left prison on Friday after a judge ordered his release, startling financial markets and reigniting both ends of the political spectrum with calls for demonstrations in coming days.
As he walked out of the jail that held him for 19 months on a bribery conviction, Lula raised a defiant fist in the air to the cheers of a crowd of supporters from his Workers Party who waved red flags and held "Free Lula” banners.
His release is expected to further polarize a country that elected far-right President Jair Bolsonaro last year in a vote that Lula said on Friday was "robbed” from his Workers Party, which governed the country from 2002 to 2016.
A charismatic speaker and formidable campaigner, Lula is ineligible under Brazil’s Clean Record law to seek elected office until 2025. While he can otherwise engage in politics, his release from prison is pending appeals that may continue winding through the courts for years.
In his first speech to supporters outside his jail in the southern city of Curitiba, Lula vowed to fight to establish his innocence, accusing "rotten” police, prosecutors and judges of "working to criminalize the left.”
He called for a rally on Saturday at the metalworkers union on the outskirts of Sao Paulo where he got his political start, pledging to follow that up with a national tour.
In a sign of the fault lines stretching across Latin America, Argentina’s left-wing President-elect Alberto Fernandez was quick to celebrate Lula’s release on Friday and criticize his "persecution” by Brazilian courts.
The federal judge’s order freeing Lula followed a Supreme Court ruling late on Thursday ending the mandatory imprisonment of convicted criminals after they lose their first appeal.
The politically charged ruling is expected to free scores of high-profile convicts in the so-called "Car Wash” corruption investigation, including Lula, as the former president is known, who had been behind bars for a bribery conviction.
Lula was imprisoned in 2018 for eight years and 10 months after being found guilty of taking bribes from engineering firms in return for public contracts. He has maintained his innocence and said the case against him was politically motivated.
While Lula had fought to overturn the sentence, many urged the Supreme Court to overturn a prior ruling that convicts, including the former president, must do prison time before exhausting their appeals. On Thursday, the top court voted 6-5 that the precedent was in fact unconstitutional.