Brazilian ex-president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva gestures on Saturday during a Catholic mass in memory of his late wife Marisa Leticia, at the metalworkers' union building where is holed up in Sao Bernardo do Campo, in Sao Paulo, Brazil
BRAZIL - 8 April 2018: Brazil's election frontrunner and leftist icon Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva told thousands of supporters Saturday he was finally ready to turn himself in to start a 12-year sentence for corruption, but insisted on his innocence.
In his hometown of Sao Bernardo do Campo, Lula exited the metalworkers' union building where he had spent the last two days holed up, and addressed the cheering crowd that had been acting as a human shield.
The two-term former president called himself "an outraged citizen" over his conviction for accepting a luxury apartment as a bribe. He said that Brazil's top anti-corruption judge, Sergio Moro, "lied" about him being given the apartment by a big construction firm as a kickback.
"I am the only human being to be put on trial for an apartment which does not belong to me," he said.
But Lula, 72, said: "I will comply with their warrant."
Despite his legal problems, Lula is the frontrunner in polls ahead of Brazil's October presidential election and his exit from the race would throw it wide open. Currently a hard-right former army officer, Jair Bolsonaro, is polling in second place.
In his passionate, combative, hour-long speech, Lula accused the judiciary and Brazil's most powerful media conglomerate of assisting a right-wing coup with the ultimate aim of preventing him from competing.
"They don't want me to take part," he said. "Their obsession is to get a photo of Lula as a prisoner."
- Raised on shoulders -
Lula had been ordered by Moro to surrender to the authorities on Friday, but he skipped the deadline, staying surrounded by his supporters in the union building.
Throughout his speech, the crowd, mostly wearing the red of Lula's Workers' Party, chanted for him not to surrender.
"Free Lula, free Lula!" they shouted.
But Lula said he now wanted to go to prison and that he had rejected multiple suggestions of fleeing or seeking asylum abroad.
"I want to face them and look at them in their eyes," he said of his accusers.
"You'll see that I will come out of this bigger, stronger," he said, promising to prove his innocence.
After the speech, Lula was lifted onto the shoulders of supporters who chanted, "I am Lula," and carried him back into the building.
It was not clear exactly when he would surrender to the authorities or where, given the potentially volatile crowd still camped around the union building.
- Corruption battle -
Lula was convicted last year of taking a luxury seaside apartment near Sao Paulo as a kickback from OAS, the construction company. He lost a lower court appeal in January and saw his sentence increased from nine to 12 years.
He also faces multiple other court cases and is considered the biggest scalp so far for prosecutors with the mammoth anti-graft probe, dubbed "Car Wash" -- an unravelling of systemic bribery and embezzlement in the top echelons of Brazilian politics.
Ever since Wednesday, Lula and his supporters have tried everything to delay the start of his prison sentence, battling everywhere from the Supreme Court to the streets.
The feverish political drama -- blending Lula's charismatic political style, the epic struggle against graft, and the fate of the October elections -- has gripped Latin America's biggest nation.
To his Workers' Party faithful, Lula is a victim of an out-of-control judiciary preventing him from returning to power.
They remember him for a 2003-2010 presidency that saw tens of millions lifted from poverty and Brazil rise on the world stage.
However, Lula's imminent arrest is being celebrated by many Brazilians.
The "Car Wash" probe is wildly popular. For many, Lula epitomizes Brazil's corruption-riddled elite.
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