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Brazil's Ex-leader Silva Faces Corruption Judge for First Time

Former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, center left, is greeted by supporters as he arrives to the Federal Justice building in Curitiba, Brazil, May 10 2017.

Former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva on Wednesday testified in a corruption case against him, coming face-to-face for the first time with the federal judge overseeing a mammoth probe that has upended Latin America's largest nation.

Silva's hearing was closed to the press and not broadcast live, two of the many measures taken by Judge Sergio Moro and authorities in the southeastern city of Curitiba amid concerns of sparking violence. Authorities planned to release a recording of the hearing a few hours after it ended.

Globo News captured images of Silva arriving to the court in a black sedan with a police escort.

Thousands of supporters — both of Silva and Moro — were separated by a few miles (kilometers) and hundreds of police in riot gear controlled several square blocks around the federal courthouse.

"Brazil's most popular politician in the last 30 years is going before a judge like any regular citizen," said Mauricio Santoro, a political scientist at the State University of Rio de Janeiro. "That is very rare in Brazilian politics."

Police officers stand in front of the Federal Justice during a testimony of former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in Curitiba, Brazil, May 10, 2017.
Police officers stand in front of the Federal Justice during a testimony of former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in Curitiba, Brazil, May 10, 2017.

Silva, president between 2003 and 2010, was testifying about allegations that he received a beachfront apartment as a kickback from construction company OAS. Prosecutors also allege that OAS did repairs to the apartment and paid to store Silva's belongings. The former president denies the charges, along with those related to several other cases of corruption against him.

His testimony came after several attempts by his defense team to postpone the hearing. The last appeal, to the Supreme Federal Tribunal, Brazil's highest court, was denied about an hour before his testimony began.

Silva's defense team argued it needed more time to analyze the case. Silva opponents counter that it was an excuse to prolong the case. The defense has also said it wants to call more than 80 witnesses.

Silva has reason to drag out the process. He has signaled his interest in running for president in 2018, and leads in preference polls. He would be ineligible, however, if he is convicted and that conviction is upheld on appeal.

Moro, who has become a national hero to many Brazilians while overseeing the so-called "Car Wash" investigation, is known for reaching judgments relatively quickly and then denying the release of convicts while they appeal.

Since it launched in March 2014, the investigation centered at state oil company Petrobras has led to the convictions of dozens of top politicians and businessmen. Many more are being investigated in the kickback scheme, which prosecutors say involved more than $3 billion in bribes over more than a decade. The probe has also spread beyond Brazil to several Latin American countries.

In a sign of the pressure surrounding Silva's case, last week Moro posted a video in which he asked supporters of the investigation not to come out. During a public appearance this week, he also downplayed the hearing, saying it was procedural and that no decision would be reached Wednesday.

For his part, Silva has started hinting at getting revenge for what he insists is a witch hunt aimed at keeping him from returning to the presidency.

"If they don't arrest me soon, maybe one day I'll arrest them for lying," Silva told members of his Workers' Party during a gathering last week, according to daily Folha de S. Paulo.