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Former Brazil president Lula convicted of graft
[BRASÍLIA] Brazil's former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva was convicted of graft on Wednesday, becoming the biggest scalp yet in a sprawling political corruption probe engulfing Latin America's largest economy.
Campaigning anti-corruption judge Sergio Moro sentenced Lula, who ruled Brazil from 2003-2010, to nine and a half years in prison for accepting a bribe of a luxury seaside apartment and US$1.1 million.
But he said the 71-year-old Lula would remain free pending an appeal - something his lawyers said they would lodge immediately.
"We are appealing and will prove his innocence," the lawyers said in a statement sent to AFP.
The conviction nevertheless landed a heavy blow on the prospect of Lula making a political comeback in presidential elections due in October next year.
The verdict also sent a dramatic message to much of the rest of Brazil's political class that they, too, risked falling afoul of an anti-graft drive.
Even the current president, Michel Temer, has been charged with taking bribes and several of his ministers have resigned after corruption claims were made.
The sea change has come about because of Operation "Car Wash," a sweeping anti-corruption probe looking into a giant embezzlement and kickbacks scheme involving state-owned oil group Petrobras, construction firms and several political parties - Lula's Workers' Party chief among them.
LULA DENIES CHARGES
But while many Brazilians welcome the long-overdue clean-up of their notoriously dirty political scene, the uncertainty is hobbling their country's struggle to exit from a historic recession.
The verdict against Lula "all but rules him out of the running for next year's presidential election," said Capital Economics, an economic analysis firm.
It added that the court's decision was "likely to give a near-term boost to Brazilian markets" as the prospect receded of Lula, a leftwing former union leader, returning to power and quashing needed economic reforms.
Lula has repeatedly denied taking any bribes during or after his presidency. He has described the investigation against him by Moro as a campaign to prevent his return to power.
The conviction focused on allegations that Lula received the triplex apartment as a bribe from one of Brazil's biggest construction companies, OAS.
The judge ordered that the apartment be confiscated.
"Between the crimes of corruption and money laundering, there are sufficient grounds for sentences totaling nine years and six months of incarceration," Moro said in his verdict.
The sentence by Moro - whose wide popularity in Brazil for his anti-corruption work has prompted some to see him as a possible presidential candidate - fed into broader political ructions in Brazil.
Lula's chosen successor, Dilma Rousseff, was impeached and booted from office last year, with Mr Temer, her vice-president, taking over the reins.
Two weeks ago, Moro sentenced an influential minister in the Lula and Rousseff governments, Antonio Palocci, to 12 years in prison for corruption.
Palocci played a central role in the "Car Wash" scheme, most of which unfolded when Lula's Workers' Party was in power from 2003 to 2016.
Prosecutors said Palocci was a pointman in the flow of "bribes between the Odebrecht construction group and intermediaries of the Workers' Party," laundering more than US$10 million used for party campaign finances.
Odebrecht, an industrial conglomerate with projects around the world, named Palocci "the Italian" in its list of code names for politicians regularly taking bribes in exchange for lucrative contracts with Petrobras and other favors.