SAO PAULO - Former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva told a Brazilian court Wednesday that the corruption charges against him stem form a witch hunt and questioned the impartiality of the judge.
Silva's deposition in the southeastern city of Curitiba was the second time he faced off with Judge Sergio Moro, who oversees the country's sprawling investigation into bribes to politicians in return for favors to companies.
In May, Brazil's former leader also struck a defiant note in court for another case and Moro eventually found him guilty, sentencing him to 9 years in prison. Silva is appealing that conviction.
“I am going to get home tomorrow and eat lunch with eight grandchildren,” Silva said. “Can I look my children in the eye and tell them that I testified in front of an impartial judge?”
Moro responded that he could, but Silva retorted: “That wasn't what happened in the other case.”
In the case at hand Wednesday, the former president is accused of corruption for allegedly accepting an arrangement in which construction giant Odebrecht would buy a piece of land that was supposed to be the site of new headquarters for Silva's Instituto Lula.
Several other charges are pending for Silva, who has denied any wrongdoing and says the accusations are politically motivated.
“This is a witch hunt,” he told the court.
Last week, Silva's former finance minister, Antonio Palocci, who has been in jail for a year, corroborated the accusation in this case. In court Wednesday, Silva said he “pitied” Palocci and said he was lying to save his own skin.
Supporters of Silva, many wearing the trademark red of his Workers' Party, gave him a rock star's welcome as he made his way through the crowd to enter the court.
“We have to be in the streets, we have to protest because we can't accept losing a great leader of the country,” said one, Richard Fogabia, adding that he thought the proceedings were a show trial.
Another demonstration was staged in support of Moro.
The judge and Silva are two of the major players in the near-operatic drama that is the “Car Wash” investigation: Each has his own staunch supporters and bitter detractors.
‘Unjust, absurd and regrettable'
Silva is just one of the senior politicians caught up in the probe, which is the largest in Brazil's history and has jailed several executives as well.
Odebrecht was one of the companies at the center of the bribery scheme, But the focus has more recently switched to JBS, the world's largest meatpacker, whose executives have confessed to doling out millions to secure legislative and political favors.
In exchange for their testimony, JBS chief executive Wesley Batista and his brother Joesley, the company's former chairman, have received immunity from prosecution. But prosecutors are now looking into those deals.
On Wednesday, police arrested Wesley Batista amid allegations that he and his brother used their own plea bargains to gain an advantage in financial markets.
Executives from JBS have provided evidence for some of the most serious allegations, including claims that President Michel Temer arranged to receive millions in payouts in exchange for helping the meatpacker. Temer denies wrongdoing.
In recent days, prosecutors have questioned whether Joesley Bastista and other executives may have withheld some information, violating their plea deals.
Pierpaolo Cruz Bottini, a lawyer for the Batista brothers, called the arrest “unjust, absurd and regrettable.” He said his clients had cooperated with authorities at every step and suggested they were being targeted by some within the government for having reached plea bargains.
A warrant for Joesley Batista's arrest was also issued, but the executive has been in custody since Sunday following the questions about his plea testimony.
Wednesday's accusations focused on the company's activity in the weeks before their plea deals became public.
Police investigator Victor Hugo Rodrigues Alves said the Batistas knew the plea bargains would affect stock prices and cause the Brazilian real to weaken against the U.S. dollar and he alleged they used that to their advantage.
Between late April and mid-May, while negotiating their plea bargains, the brothers made large purchases of dollars on the futures markets, Rodrigues Alves said. During that period, their holding company also sold hundreds of millions of dollars in JBS shares.
“The victims are not just JBS shareholders,” Rodrigues Alves said. “In a large context, the country is a victim, as the crimes shook the confidence of the market.”