Brazil's former president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, is sworn in as the new chief of staff for embattled President Dilma Rousseff on March 17, 2016 in Brasilia, Brazil. His controversial cabinet appointment comes in the wake of a massive corruption scandal and economic recession in Brazil.
Brazil's former president sentenced to prison
01:31 - Source: CNN
Sao Bernardo do Campo, Brazil CNN  — 

Former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva turned himself over to federal authorities Saturday to begin serving a 12-year prison sentence for corruption.

Before Lula da Silva surrendered to police, his supporters prevented him from turning himself in by blocking his car.

Lula da Silva had been holed up since Friday in the steelworker’s union headquarters surrounded by many hundreds of supporters. As he tried to leave the compound Saturday through a gate, dozens of supporters surrounded the vehicle shouting “don’t surrender” and “no turning back,” which forced his vehicle to back away from the gate.

Thursday, a federal judge ordered Lula da Silva’s arrest after the Supreme Court ruled he must start serving the 12-year prison sentence. Lula da Silva, a former steelworker’s union leader, remained at the union headquarters Friday, defying an order to turn himself in to police by 5 p.m. in the southern city of Curitiba.

Lula da Silva, who governed Brazil from 2003 to 2011, was considered a front-runner in this October’s elections. But the court’s decision not to grant his request to remain free while appealing the conviction has cast doubt on his bid to regain power.

After the incident with his supporters, Lula walked himself outside the gates of the headquarters, got into another car and joined a police envoy. The convoy headed to to Sao Paolo airport where the former President was expected to board a flight to Curitiba.

“I believe in justice and know I am not above the law,” Lula da Silva, 72, said from a stage outside the steelworkers’ union headquarters earlier Saturday. “I will prove my innocence.”

The ex-leader greets supporters Saturday in Sao Bernardo do Campo.

The union building is in the city of Sao Bernardo do Campo in Sao Paulo state, more 260 miles to the north.

Speaking to supporters from a memorial for his late wife, Marisa Leticia Lula da Silva, he said his arrest is politically motivated and that “history will prove” that he is not guilty.

“I will turn myself into the authorities willingly,” Lula da Silva said. “If the crime I’m guilty of is bringing food and education to the poor, then I hope I’ll continue to be the biggest criminal in this country.”

Shortly before Friday’s deadline, Brazil’s Superior Court of Justice, the nation’s highest appellate court, rejected a habeas corpus request to delay the prison time.

“Their dream is for me not to run, their other dream is to see my picture in prison,” Lula da Silva said Saturday. “The more days I spend in jail, the more ‘Lulas’ will emerge in this country.”

In January, an appeals court unanimously upheld the corruption and money laundering charges against him, and he was handed the prison sentence. Lula da Silva was initially found guilty of the charges in July.

Lula da Silva has strongly denied any wrongdoing. His defense said he was a victim of political persecution.

His conviction stemmed from a wide-ranging corruption investigation into the state-run oil company Petrobras, dubbed “Operation Car Wash.” The accusations against him emerged after he left office in 2011.

Lula da Silva was accused of benefiting from the renovation of a triplex in a beach town near Sao Paulo by the construction company OAS. The charges were connected to 3.7 million reais’ worth of bribes ($1.1 million) received from OAS through the beachfront apartment. In return, Lula da Silva helped the builder acquire contracts from the oil company, prosecutors charged.

Universally known as Lula, Lula da Silva is a founding member of Brazil’s only socialist political party, Partido dos Trabalhadores, the Workers’ Party.

He won two terms as President. He was friends with the late Cuban leader Fidel Castro, who supported his political career, and attended Castro’s funeral.

Lula da Silva left office with a 90% approval rating but was questioned by police about the corruption allegations in March 2016.

Lula da Silva’s wife and six others also were charged. Marisa Leticia Lula da Silva, who died in February 2017, would have turned 68 on Saturday.

Journalist Marcia Reverdosa reported from Sao Bernardo do Campo, and CNN’s Flora Charner wrote in Atlanta. CNN’s Daniel Silva, Bard Wilkinson and Jamie Gray contributed to this report.