Crowds cheer Brazilian ex-president after being grilled by police

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and hundreds of people are standing in solidarity for former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva after police questioned him in an corruption investigation involving state-run oil company Petrobras.

Leo Correa/AP
A woman holds a banner with a picture of the Brazil's former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva that reads in Portuguese "Lula again with the people's power" during a demonstration in to support him, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Friday, March 4, 2016. Brazilian police hauled in the former president for questioning in a sprawling corruption case centered on the Petrobras oil company that has already ensnared some of the country’s top lawmakers and richest and most powerful businessmen. Silva reacted with indignation, saying the Petrobras corruption case has become a political witch hunt targeting him and his governing Workers' Party.

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff joined hundreds of people gathered outside the residence of her predecessor Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva on Saturday, one day after police questioned him in an investigation into a sprawling corruption case involving state-run oil company Petrobras.

"She is going to meet with Lula as a gesture of solidarity and support," a press officer at the presidential palace said, referring to Silva by his nickname. The officer spoke on condition of anonymity because she not authorized to speak on the matter.

Images aired by the Globo TV network showed Rousseff arriving at Silva's home. Minutes later, images were broadcast of Rousseff, the former president and his wife Marisa waving to the crowd from a balcony.

Police raided Silva's home Friday morning and took him to a federal police station at the city's Congonhas airport, where they questioned him for about four hours.

Later that day, Rousseff expressed her "total unconformity" with the operation, which she called unnecessary.

Outside Silva's building in Sao Bernardo do Campo, an industrial suburb of Sao Paulo, supporters chanted "if you mess with him, you mess with me." They hung a banner that read "Lula, the most honest and honorable man of this country."

Unlike Friday, when Silva supporters and critics clashed in front of the building, Saturday's gathering was peaceful in the absence of Silva opponents.

Some opponents did paint on a wall of his nonprofit foundation Instituto Lula: "Lula, thief. Enough of corruption ... your hour has arrived."

In an editorial published Saturday, the O Estado de S. Paulo newspaper said Silva "always knew of the corruption scheme" and that he was its "mentor hiding behind the mask of a hero for ethics in politics."

"That mask was ripped off on Friday," it added.

David Fleischer, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Brasilia said: "The questioning by police of Lula is the beginning of the end of his era and by extension the end of Dilma.

"It will also weaken the Workers' Party which is being wiped out," he said. "It is the beginning of the end of a long dirty journey."

The once-immensely popular president, who governed from 2003 to 2010, angrily denounced the raid on his home by police as part of a campaign to sully his image, that of his party and that of his hand-picked successor, President Dilma Rousseff.

"I felt like a prisoner," said Silva, who has expressed interest in possibly running for president again. At a rally late Friday in Sao Paulo, an emotional Silva insisted on his innocence and blasted those accusing him. "If they are a cent more honest than I, then I will leave politics," he pledged, his eyes welling with tears.

Police said they also searched the headquarters of the Instituto Lula, as well as properties connected to his sons and other family members. One of his sons was brought in for questioning.

Officials said they were looking into 30 million Brazilian reals ($8.12 million) in payments for speeches and donations to the Instituto Lula by construction firms that were crucial players in the Petrobras corruption scheme. They were also looking into whether renovations and other work at a country house and beachfront apartment used by Silva and his family constituted favors in exchange for political benefit.

"No one is exempt from investigation in this country," said public prosecutor Carlos Fernando dos Santos Lima. "Anyone in Brazil is subject to be investigated when there are indications of a crime."

Prosecutors in the so-called Car Wash corruption case say more than $2 billion was paid in bribes to obtain Petrobras contracts, with some money making its way to several political parties, including the governing Workers' Party. Some of Brazil's wealthiest people, including the heads of top construction companies, have been caught up in the probe, as have dozens of politicians from both the governing coalition and the opposition.

The reaction of the governing party was scathing. Workers' Party president Rui Falcao issued a video statement calling the detention "a political spectacle" that revealed the "true character" of the probe.

"It's not about combatting corruption but simply to hit the Workers' Party, President Lula and the government of President Dilma," Falcao said.

Legal analysts said that bringing Silva in for questioning suggests that any possible case against him is still in its early phases.

"Police are still collecting evidence. There is no smoking gun because if there were, the searches wouldn't be needed," said Jair Jaloreto, a Sao Paulo-based expert on money laundering.

A lathe operator at a metal factory who entered politics as a labor union leader, Silva was widely seen as representing the common man, and his ascension to the country's highest office was hailed in a nation long dominated by the elite. During his two terms in office Silva presided over galloping economic growth that pulled tens of millions of poor Brazilians into the ranks of the middle class.

Despite a votes-for-bribes scandal that took down his chief-of-staff and others, Silva left office with record high popularity levels and his hand-picked successor, Rousseff, handily won the presidency.

Silva and Rousseff have seen their popularity nosedive as Brazil has slipped into its worst recession in decades and the Car Wash investigation spread. Rousseff's approval ratings have dipped into single digits, though they've rebounded slightly of late. She faces impeachment proceedings.

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