DAVID GREENE, HOST:
And we're reporting this morning on political turmoil in Brazil. An appeals court yesterday decided to uphold a corruption conviction against the country's former president, Lula da Silva. This ruling could have a huge impact on Brazil's election this year. Lula, as he's universally known, is the frontrunner. NPR's Philip Reeves is with us from Rio de Janeiro.
Good morning, Phil.
PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Good morning.
GREENE: So just put this in perspective for us, this moment. What is the meaning of this verdict?
REEVES: Yeah, let me give you some context 'cause there are some very big themes in play here. For some years now, Brazil's prosecutors and judiciary have been going after top politicians and business executives. This is all part of an attempt to clean up the massive institutionalized corruption here. They jailed some of the most powerful people in Latin America. I'm sure you remember. It's called Operation Car Wash.
REEVES: This case is part of that, David. It pitches the judiciary against a former president who was once extraordinarily popular and still appears to have the support of more than a third of the country. The judiciary in this case has stuck to its position. The three judges were unanimous in concluding that Lula accepted an apartment as a bribe from a construction company. And they actually increased his prison sentence from nine-and-a-half to 12 years.
GREENE: Oh, actually increased the sentence, this appeals court did?
REEVES: Yes (laughter).
GREENE: So how is Lula reacting?
REEVES: Well, with defiance. He held a rally in the city of Sao Paolo last night after the verdict. And he insisted, as he has for some time, that the conviction's politically motivated, part of an attempt to block his return as president. Some people think that his strategy is to use this conviction to present himself as a victim of political persecution to boost his support and that of his leftist Workers' Party. But in the long run, he needs political allies. And they may well start turning their attention elsewhere in the light of this verdict.
GREENE: Although this is interesting - he is seeing maybe an opportunity or maybe making the best of a situation, presenting himself as the victim maybe in the presidential campaign. But can he actually run in a presidential election if he's facing this conviction?
REEVES: Well, Brazilian law says that right now he's become ineligible to run in the election. But the law doesn't kick in until he registers as a candidate in August. And then the case would go to the electoral courts, which would almost certainly uphold the law. But this all means, David, that there's, you know, this huge uncertainty here in Brazil about the upcoming election, which is only nine months away. There are other candidates, or potential candidates, out there. But it's worth noting that polling second in the presidential race right now is a congressman from the far right, Jair Bolsonaro, who has a highly controversial record that includes making homophobic and sexist remarks.
GREENE: So will Lula go to jail for those 12 years or for any time?
REEVES: Not yet. He still has some further avenues of appeal to higher courts. It's thought that he's unlikely to be jailed until those are exhausted. But yesterday's verdict is definitely a very big blow.
GREENE: Quite a political moment in Brazil.
That's NPR's Philip Reeves talking to us from Rio de Janeiro. Phil, thanks.
REEVES: You're most welcome.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPANIOL AND MERAKI'S "CONFISSAO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.