The fragility of democracy is once again exposed in Brazil, where thousands of enraged right-wingers stormed and briefly occupied its parliament and Supreme Court. They came too late, because these institutions are on holiday after the New Year celebrations of Lula’s electoral victory, but the complicity of some authorities with their subversion was apparent.
The cause of their hatred of Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (known as Lula) – a past political hero who delivered 20 million citizens from poverty – is not due to Bolsonaro’s attacks on him or on the country’s voting system, as foreign press commentators would have it. The hatred was fomented some years ago by judges and journalists and prosecutors, who used their offices to frame Lula for corruption crimes of which he was innocent.
I watched these judicial travesties in Brazilian courts over the past six years while acting for Lula in his appeal to the UN Human Rights Committee – the only tribunal where, until the very end, he could obtain a fair hearing. I acted for him free of charge – the Lula Institute, which retained me, had all its funds frozen by a malevolent judge but I decided to continue simply because, after careful study of his case, I was convinced that he was not guilty.
The two charges brought against him would have been thrown out of court in Britain. His late wife had a contract to buy an apartment on which she was offered an upgrade, an offer which was never taken up and a property that never passed to Lula. Then there was an allegation that on five weekends over several years, his family had stayed at the county estate of a supporter.
There was never any evidence of a quid pro quo necessary for corruption, and the politically ambitious judge who concocted the allegations (he was rewarded by appointment as Bolsonaro’s first minister of justice) was finally found by the Supreme Court to be irredeemably biased, but not before Lula had suffered 590 days of unjust imprisonment, much of his time in solitary confinement.
His fight back is a truly remarkable story of overcoming a miscarriage of justice, and the irony is that those democratic institutions defending him today against the mob are those very same institutions that whipped up mob hatred against him originally. The Globo media monopoly which now describes an “attempted fascist coup” once demonised Lula, regularly depicting him in prison uniform.
The judges – I watched them – delivered judgements which twisted facts and refused to engage with appeal arguments while police and prosecutors deployed grossly unfair tactics (they were roundly condemned by the UN tribunal last year) that amounted to persecution.
These institutions, as if shamed by what they had unleashed, are today belatedly defending the man they once degraded by falsely arresting him, declaring him guilty long before his trial, and publishing extracts from his illegally taped telephone conversations.
Now that he is president, they have swung behind him – he is a bastion of their society as well – and through all the gritted teeth of the wealthy, his presidency now seems secure.
So is his international position and presence. Obama used to joke that he was the world’s most popular politician. Biden and Blinken have hastened to put US weight firmly behind him, as have Macron and other European leaders (except for the UK – James Cleverly has stupidly so far said nothing in defence of democracy, though Sunak did speak after the storming by protesters and also made a belated call to Lula, 39 days after he won back the presidency).
Until shortly before the 2022 elections, Lula had little international support even from the left. They were frightened by the “C word” – corruption – and even intellectuals who had pretended to adore him for relieving the poor dropped all mention of his work and failed to offer any help even when he most needed it, before and during the lengthy period of wrongful imprisonment.
There were a few exceptions – Sharan Burrow, the feisty Australian head of the International Trade Union Congress and Jeremy Corbyn.
The rabble that attacked Brazil’s empty offices of state have actually done Lula a favour by provoking international applause for his government, publicity for his own extraordinary struggle and frightening the upper and middle classes in Brazil into accepting it – for the moment and probably for the next four years.
Lula will deliver as he did during his previous presidency: he will save the Amazon from the forestry industry, and help the poor and sick, and provide some constitutional protection for indigenous people.
He might also do something about the country’s justice system, which dates back to the Spanish Inquisition and put him in the prison from which, against all the odds, he emerged to save democracy in Brazil and strike a blow in its favour in the world.
Geoffrey Robertson KC was Lula’s lawyer., His most recent book, Lawfare, was published this week by William Collins