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Brazil's Lula says graft charges aim to destroy him politically

Brazil's former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva defended himself against corruption charges Thursday, saying the case against him was an attempt to destroy him politically ahead of elections in 2018.

[SAO PAULO] Brazil's former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva defended himself against corruption charges Thursday, saying the case against him was an attempt to destroy him politically ahead of elections in 2018.

Speaking a day after prosecutors accused him of masterminding a massive corruption scheme at state oil company Petrobras, the popular leftist launched a wide-ranging defense of his career and legacy.

He described both the case against him and unrelated charges that brought down his impeached successor, Dilma Rousseff, last month as part of an elite conspiracy against the powerful Workers' Party he co-founded.

Rousseff was replaced on August 31 by center-right President Michel Temer, her former vice president-turned-nemesis.

"Like a soap opera intrigue, they created an epilogue: they elected Temer, removed Dilma from office... and now they want to destroy Lula's political life," he said, flanked by supporters at a press conference in Sao Paulo.

Lula, a former shoeshine boy and steelworker who remains a hero to many poor Brazilians, presided over eight years of prosperity from 2003 to 2011, then handed power to Rousseff, his hand-picked successor.

Wearing a red Workers' Party shirt beneath a gray blazer, Lula recalled how social programmes launched during his administration helped tens of millions of Brazilians escape poverty.

"I'm proud to have created the largest left-wing party in Latin America," said Lula, 70.

The gravelly-voiced, charismatic leader is still seen as potential come-back material in Brazil - or was until recently.

Polls show the founder of the leftist Workers' Party to be a favourite for returning to power in the next presidential elections in 2018.

But his political project is in turmoil after Rousseff's impeachment and his own legal troubles.

Rousseff was convicted by the Senate on unrelated charges of accounting irregularities, but is broadly seen to be paying the price for the Petrobras scandal and Brazil's worst recession in 80 years.

The charges allege that Lula and his wife received the equivalent of 3.7 million reais (S$1.5 million) in bribes.

Among the allegations are that Lula and former first lady Marisa Leticia received a beachside apartment and upgrades to the property from a major construction company, OAS, which was one of the players in the Petrobras scheme.

The allegations are not new but they now go before Judge Sergio Moro, head of the Petrobras investigation, who will decide whether to accept them, forcing Lula's case to trial.

Prosecutor Deltan Dallagnol singled out Lula - who was president during much of the time that Petrobras was being systematically fleeced by a network of corrupt executives and politicians - as the scheme's "supreme commander."

Lula's attorney has called the allegations "farcical." In the scheme, Petrobras, Brazil's biggest state company, gave over-inflated contracts to other big firms, such as OAS and construction rival Odebrecht.

The network also involved high-ranking politicians who took bribes from the contractors, sometimes for their own gain and sometimes to fill party coffers to fund election campaigns.

Dozens of politicians and some of Brazil's richest businessmen have been charged or convicted.

The judicial campaign is hugely popular among Brazilians fed up with runaway corruption.

The fallout has been widespread.

Several close allies of Temer, the new president, are now being investigated by Petrobras prosecutors.

Lula was hailed internationally for combining business-friendly economic policy with social welfare programmes that helped fight centuries of deep-rooted inequality in Brazil.

He also was key in winning hosting rights to the 2014 World Cup and the Rio de Janeiro Olympics, which finished on August 21 - South America's first.

But his legacy and power base are rapidly crumbling.

Even the Workers' Party, which dominated Brazilian politics for 13 years, is now in peril.

A conviction would dash Lula's hopes of running for a third term in office in the 2018 elections.

He has already been charged with attempting to obstruct investigations in the Petrobras case, a probe dubbed "Operation Carwash."