Former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva must stand trial on charges of money laundering and corruption, a Brazilian judge has ruled.
Judge Sergio Moro said there was enough evidence to start a judicial process against Mr Silva, his wife and six others in a widening corruption probe centred on the country’s huge state-run oil company Petrobras.
Prosecutors have called Mr Silva the “maximum commander” of the Petrobras corruption scandal that has rocked Brazil. Prosecutors say billions of dollars in bribes were paid to win inflated contracts from the company.
The judge’s decision had been expected after prosecutors charged Mr Silva last week.
On Tuesday Mr Silva called the accusation a “farce, a big lie and a great spectacle”.
In explaining his decision, Judge Moro said Mr Silva and others benefited from renovations at a beachfront apartment in the coastal city of Guaruja in Sao Paulo state. The improvements were made by building company OAS, which is one of those involved in the bribery scheme at Petrobras.
Judge Moro said prosecutors believe the former president received 1.15 million dollars in bribes from OAS for getting it contracts related to refineries.
“The facts and evidence are enough for me to accept the accusation,” he said in a document sent to the media. “Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva allegedly received benefits from Group OAS. According to the accusation, he had knowledge of its origins in the criminal scheme that damaged Petrobras.”
The judge gave Mr Silva and the other defendants 10 days to present their defence in court.
Mr Silva, who was a highly popular president in 2003-10, has long been implicated in the so-called Car Wash investigation. But last week, prosecutors raised his purported role in the scheme that goes back more than a decade, calling him the “maximum commander”.
In a message streamlined on the YouTube channel of the Brazilian unions of metal and bank workers, Mr Silva accused investigators of pushing other suspects in the case to implicate him in exchange for freedom. Many of those implicated have struck plea bargains with the prosecution for reduced sentences.
“I have a clear conscience. If they have one single proof against me – one, I am not asking for two – I want to be on trial like any other Brazilian citizen,” he said.
Last week Mr Silva acknowledged having visited the penthouse cited in the accusation but said he never owned it.
He has said prosecutors are trying to undermine his chances for a return to politics. While his Workers’ Party has lost much support amid corruption scandals in recent years, Silva continues to be a popular possible contender for the presidential race in 2018.
In a statement, defence lawyers Cristiano Zanin Martins and Roberto Teixeira said the allegations against Silva were flawed and lacked proof. They accused the judge of being biased against the former president and said they hoped a higher court would accept a motion they filed in July seeking to remove Judge Moro from hearing the case.
The Petrobras investigation began more than two years ago and has led to the jailing of dozens of businessmen and top politicians. But the judge’s decision on Tuesday is taking the case to a new level, analysts say.
“Moro has shown that the investigation will only fade away when Lula is behind bars,” said Rafael de Paula Aguiar Araujo, a political science professor at Pontifical Catholic University of Sao Paulo.
Mr Silva had already been ordered to stand trial on charges of obstruction of justice in another case related to Petrobras.