Brazilian authorities question former President Lula in Petrobras corruption probe

Brazilian authorities question former President Lula in Petrobras corruption probe
Police stand guard outside the apartment of former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on March 4. (Sebastiao Moreira / European Pressphoto Agency)

Former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva was questioned by federal police Friday as part of investigations into accusations of massive, long-running corruption and money laundering schemes involving the state oil company Petrobras and a string of major construction firms.

Authorities early Friday were at the former president's home in Sao Bernardo do Campo; the Sao Paulo headquarters of his institute, Instituto Lula; and the home of his son, Fabio Luiz Lula da Silva, among other locations as part of Operation Lava Jato, or Car Wash.

In a statement, police said they were carrying out 44 judicial orders as part of the broader Petrobras probe.

Prosecutors say more than $2 billion in bribes was paid by businessmen to obtain Petrobras contracts. Investigators have also said that some of the money made its way to several political parties, including Lula's Workers' Party.

Authorities said they were acting on a warrant requiring Lula to answer questions pertaining to the probe into semi-public Petrobras.

The former president was taken from his home to a federal police station at Congonhas airport, where he was questioned for about three hours.

As news of his detention spread, supporters and protesters clashed outside his home, exchanging kicks and punches, and further scuffles were reported outside the airport building where he was being questioned.

Investigators are questioning Lula, who governed Brazil from 2003 to 2010 and remains a powerful figure in the ruling Workers' Party, in an attempt to get to the bottom of his relationship with the construction giants Odebrecht and OAS, both beneficiaries of multimillion-dollar contracts during his presidency, and both major campaign contributors to the party.

The offices of Odebrecht and OAS were also raided Friday.

Federal prosecutor Carlos Fernando dos Santos Lima said during a news conference in Curitiba, where the investigation is based, that evidence pointed to Lula's involvement in suspected corruption, and that money from the scheme had been used in political campaigns run by the ruling Workers' Party.

Lula is accused of having benefited personally from a corruption scheme, with benefits related to two properties in the state of Sao Paulo: a farm in Atibaia and a luxury triplex apartment in the seaside resort of Guaraja; the latter is suspected to have been renovated by Odebrecht at a cost of $180,000 as part of the scheme.

In a statement, police said investigations by the Operation Car Wash task force and by federal police had uncovered evidence that "the crimes enriched [Lula], and financed electoral campaigns and his political party."

After completing the police questioning about midday, Lula was driven to the Workers' Party national headquarters in central Sao Paulo, where he met with party leaders, members of Congress, senators and activists, members of Brazil's landless movement, and representatives of the Brazilian Communist Party, a close ally of the Workers' Party.

About 300 supporters gathered outside waved flags and chanted slogans in support of Lula.

"Lula, warrior of the Brazilian people!" and "There will be no coup," referring to what government supporters say is a politically motivated attack on the Workers Party, and in particular on Lula and his successor, President Dilma Rousseff.

Rousseff is facing impeachment proceedings over accusations of illicit use of state funds to doctor the annual budget, charges unrelated to Petrobras and Operation Car Wash.

Standing outside the Workers' Party headquarters, Lina Noronha, 50, a musicologist and university professor, called Lula's detention "indecent" and "arbitrary."

Lula, at a news conference at party headquarters, criticized the decision to take him in for questioning. He was not arrested or charged with any crime.

"It would have been so simple to have asked me to go. I would have gone," he said. "This morning, I felt like a prisoner."

Lula said he had already presented himself for questioning three times this year, including on one occasion while on vacation. "I answered the exact same questions as I answered today."

Speaking for around 20 minutes, Lula denied ownership of the beachside condominium, and expressed his repudiation of the move to impeach Rousseff.

Leading members of the Workers' Party called for solidarity with Lula, as the leader of the party in Congress, Afonso Florence, described his detention as "illegal." Speaking on Friday afternoon, the Workers' Party national president Rui Falcão called Lula's detention a "political spectacle."

Observing the demonstration outside the party headquarters before Lula left the building late Friday afternoon, construction steelworker Jefferson Camilo Manuel, 42, said he thought police were only doing their job,

"If Lula has done something wrong, then he needs to be investigated — as long as everyone else is investigated too," Manuel said. "It's not just Lula and it's not just the Workers Party: there are many others involved. I hope they will all be investigated."

Rigby is a special correspondent.