LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
A man who was once one of the superstars of Latin American politics for his leftist policies has spent his first night in custody after turning himself into the police. The departure from the political stage of the former Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva was dramatic. For more than a day, Lula, as he's known, defied a judge's order to hand himself in to begin serving a 12-year prison sentence for corruption.
(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in Portuguese).
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And he was cheered on by his supporters outside a union building in Sao Paulo where he'd holed up. We're joined now by NPR's Philip Reeves, who's in Sao Paulo for the latest. Good morning.
PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Good morning.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So for those of us who've covered Brazil, which I have and you are, this is extraordinary. It looked for a while as though we could be in for a prolonged standoff between Lula and the authorities. So walk us through what happened.
REEVES: Yeah, well, he was supposed to hand himself in on Friday afternoon, but he holed up in the building where his career began. A crowd of supporters - thousands of them - many of them from his party, the Workers Party, gathered outside - but also friends and sympathizers. The deadline passed. He stayed inside. It became tense because it was very hard for the police to go in and get him with the crowd surrounding the building.
And yesterday, he finally came out, climbed onto the stage amongst the crowd, held a mass celebrating the birthday of his late wife. There were songs, chanting. He was tearful. The crowd was in tears. He made a long speech declaring his innocence but said he would hand himself in because ultimately he respected the rule of law. And he left - board aloft on the shoulders of the crowd.
It was a remarkable finale for the most charismatic of popular politicians. And finally he walked out, as darkness fell, amid much mayhem and was taken by a police escort to the airport to fly south to the city of Curitiba, where he was originally convicted. And he's now in a small cell in a federal police station with a bathroom, TV, table and bed.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Remind us how he got to this point. I mean, it has been a very long road.
REEVES: He was convicted of corruption last year and money laundering. He appealed. And then this week, the Supreme Court ruled that he could no longer carry on appealing that, at liberty. So with amazing speed, the judge who convicted him originally Sergio Moro, the famous anti-corruption judge, gave him orders to turn himself in within 24 hours. And that's where the drama again.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I think one of the most remarkable things is that Brazil has a presidential election this year, and Lula was the front runner in this election. So where does this leave the country politically?
REEVES: Yeah, and he was way ahead in the polls. Lula's party, the Workers Party, insist that he's still their candidate, and they hope that he will run. But it looks extremely doubtful as Brazilian electoral law currently excludes him. The matter would eventually be decided down the road by an electoral court. But very few people here think he can now run. Centrist candidates are beginning to appear and maneuver and get into position. And Jair Bolsonaro, an ex-army captain from the far right who's been running in second place in the polling, is looming large on the landscape. So this race is wide open, which is remarkable because there are only roughly six months to go before the election.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: One more thing - and just briefly - you know, Lula's opponents are presenting his detention as sort of a triumph for the rule of law in an endemically corrupt society. Yet other powerful politicians, including the current president Michel Temer, are facing corruption charges themselves. They've not been held to account. Is this lopsided justice?
REEVES: Well, Brazilians are very deeply divided by what's happened. And I think also many of them are traumatized by it. Some are cheering the downfall of Lula. The anti-corruption campaign, the famous car wash operation, is seen as highly popular. Others feel the law just applies to some and not to others. You mentioned Temer. There's a weight of evidence against him. And there's a feeling too that this was all rushed through, the case against Lula, with unprecedented speed and that that was motivated politically. Lula's supporters believe - and Lula argues this - that this was a conspiracy by the political right in particular to stop him running for a third term.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: NPR's Philip Reeves in Sao Paulo, thank you so much.
REEVES: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.