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Brazilians Tangle After Questioning of Former President Suspended

A woman holds a banner reading "Prison for Lula Now" during a demonstration against former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and current President Dilma Rousseff in front of the Criminal Forum in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Feb. 17, 2016.

Supporters and opponents of Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva clashed in street protests Wednesday after the suspension of planned questioning in an investigation into a beach apartment that prosecutors say the former president got from a company involved in a major corruption scandal.

Critics who want to see Lula prosecuted for corruption tried to raise a giant inflatable doll depicting the former president dressed in a prison uniform. Hundreds of his supporters tried to stop them.

The demonstrators in Sao Paulo threw rocks and water bottles at each other until police dispersed them.

A federal probe of a bribery scheme at state-run oil firm Petrobras, and a related state investigation into alleged money laundering at the apartment complex, have polarized Brazil and threatened the legacy of the leftist leader and founder of the ruling Workers' Party.

Lula's handpicked successor, President Dilma Rousseff, has seen her popularity tumble because of the corruption scandal, even though she is not under investigation.

Brazil's National Council of Public Prosecutors called off the planned questioning of Lula and his wife, Marisa, late Tuesday on the ground that the state prosecutor, Cassio Conserino, was not qualified to conduct the interrogation. Workers' Party Congressman Paulo Teixeira had sought that decision.

Sufficient evidence

Conserino told weekly magazine Veja last month that he had enough evidence to charge Lula and his wife with money laundering for hiding ownership of a three-floor apartment with private lift that builder OAS SA allegedly reserved for him at the complex in Guarujá, a coastal resort near Sao Paulo.

Conserino said at a brief news conference on Wednesday that he would seek to reverse the council's ruling.

Lula, whom many credit with lifting millions of Brazilians out of poverty during his 2003-11 period in office, has said through spokesmen that he and his wife visited the Solaris apartment complex but did not own property there. Local paper O Globo has reported that he did own an apartment there, held under a different name.

Federal prosecutors said last month that they were investigating whether OAS used the apartments to pay bribes and to launder money for Workers' Party members, but they did not say they were investigating Lula. OAS has declined to comment on the investigation.

Dozens of engineering firm executives and politicians have been arrested or are under investigation for overcharging Petroleo Brasileiro SA, as Petrobras is formally known, for building contracts and using part of the proceeds to bribe members of Rousseff's ruling coalition.