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article imageBrazil's Lula tells AFP he's innocent, unafraid of prison

By Paula Ramon and Jorge Svartzman (AFP)     Mar 1, 2018 in World

Brazil's former leader Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva told AFP on Thursday he is not afraid of a 12-year prison sentence for corruption, insisting on his innocence and determination to return to the presidency.

"I am working on the assumption that I will be a candidate and that I will win in the courts, proving my innocence," Lula said, though he conceded that the possibility of ending up behind bars "comes to mind every day."

Often coughing and drinking several cups of coffee, Lula looked every bit his 72 years during an interview at his institute in Sao Paulo, Latin America's biggest city.

But Lula, who was born in crushing poverty before founding the leftist Workers' Party and eventually becoming Brazil's first working class president after three failed runs, is nothing if not tough. And he's confident about October's presidential polls.

"They all know I am a candidate," he said of his many powerful opponents on the right.

"I will certainly make it to the second round and I could definitely win in the first round. That's why it's not in their interest that I be allowed to run."

When he left office after his two term presidency between 2003 and 2010, Lula was Brazil's most popular ever president.

Since then, however, the Workers' Party giant has seen his reputation nosedive as the economy went into recession and his handpicked successor Dilma Rousseff was removed after impeachment for illegal accounting practices in 2016.

Now he faces imminent incarceration after being convicted of taking bribes as part of a vast network of kickbacks and embezzlement involving politicians and business executives at construction companies and state oil enterprise Petrobras.

The conviction, if upheld, also would bar him from seeking political office.

- Defiant -

Lula is defiantly making a last-ditch appeal against the more than 12-year sentence and, remarkably, he continues to lead the polls of potential candidates in the October election.

Wearing his trademark socialist red T-shirt under a suit jacket, Lula told AFP that his legal problems have been manufactured by opponents.

He even compared himself to South Africa's Nelson Mandela and India's Gandhi. "A prison sentence can be very long, like Mandela's... at 27 years, or very short like that of Gandhi. I'm not worried," he said.

"If they convict and imprison me, they will be condemning an innocent man. This will have a historic price," he said. "They will have to take responsibility for what will happen in the country."

Despite that apparently veiled threat, he insisted that his supporters would not seek to undermine the election if he were barred from running.

"This country doesn't have a culture of violence in the electoral process," he said.

For many analysts, Lula's unlikely bid for a third presidential term is driven in part by his desire to keep prosecutors at bay. Current center-right President Michel Temer, for example, faces serious corruption charges of his own but is shielded partly by his office and partly by a largely sympathetic congress.

Lula insists his thirst for electoral battle is genuine.

"I will continue to travel the country, I will continue to discuss the economic problems of the country, I will continue to discuss the country's development problems until they take a decision on whether or not they will block my candidacy," he said.

- Football prediction -

Lula is understandably fixated on the prognosis for his appeal in the country's labyrinthine court system. But there is one more burning question on his mind -- same as for most Brazilians.

Can Neymar, the star striker at Paris Saint-Germain, overcome his broken foot in time to lead Brazil to glory in this summer's World Cup in Russia?

Lula said he found Neymar a "great player," though not up to the standard of the even greater Pele. "No, no!" he said.

The ex-president however appeared tranquil about Neymar's upcoming operation to fix a broken bone in his right foot and the recovery period of up to three months -- right at the eve of the World Cup.

"Brazil will get to the World Cup in good shape," Lula decreed.

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