Brazil's right-wing presidential candidate for the Social Liberal Party (PSL), Jair Bolsonaro votes during runoff elections, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on October 28, 2018. (Photo by RICARDO MORAES / POOL / AFP)RICARDO MORAES/AFP/Getty Images
Brazil elects Bolsonaro for President
01:37 - Source: CNN
Sao Paulo, Brazil CNN  — 

Former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva emerged from prison on Friday after a year and a half behind bars, offering his “eternal gratitude” to throngs of supporters camped outside and vowing he hasn’t been defeated yet.

The two-time president known simply as Lula was greeted by family, friends and party faithful who were waving red flags and “Free Lula” signs outside the jail in the southern city of Curitiba.

“I leave here without hate. At the age of 74 my heart only has room for love,” Lula said from an impromptu stage. But he added that as a migrant from the poor northeast “there isn’t anything that can beat me.”

Lula started serving a 12-year-prison sentence for corruption and money laundering in April 2018. His early release was made possible by a Supreme Court decision on Thursday night that determined defendants can remain free until they have exhausted all appeals. That ruling reversed a previous decision that had helped put dozens of powerful politicians and business leaders behind bars.

The former president was greeted by crowds of supporters when he left the prison.

Lula’s release is expected to heighten tensions in an already polarized Brazil.

He was leading polls to win last year’s presidential election despite the corruption convictions until the electoral court blocked his candidacy. Jair Bolsonaro, a far-right former lawmaker and declared enemy of Lula, was ultimately elected in October.

With their 6-5 vote, the court overturned a three-year-old decision that had determined defendants could be jailed after their convictions were upheld on appeal. That decision gave prosecutors in the so-called Car Wash investigation into a massive bribery scandal leverage to negotiate plea deals and put many in jail.

The Supreme Court reversal could benefit nearly 5,000 non-violent offenders and is viewed as a blow to the corruption-busting investigations. Now, defendants who can afford lawyers can remain free during the appeals process, which can take years in Brazil.

While Lula is still ineligible to run for office under electoral law, his release is sure to energize his party and the opposition to Bolsonaro. After celebrating with the crowds, he said, he planned to head to the metalworkers union in a São Paulo suburb where he got his political start.

“I want to tell you that starting tomorrow I am going to São Paulo,” Lula said. “Tomorrow, I have a meeting with the metalworkers union and after that, the door to Brazil is open so that I can travel across the country.”

But Friday evening was more festive. After the Supreme Court ruling, his girlfriend Rosangela da Silva tweeted “tomorrow I’ll pick you up! Wait for me!” and on Friday Lula presented her to supporters who shouted “kiss, kiss!”

The news of Lula’s release dominated social media and divided users with #LulaLivreAgora, or #FreeLulaNow, and #LulaPreso or #LulaPrisoner, trending on Twitter.

Lula, once the most popular president in recent Brazilian history, denies all wrongdoing. During his imprisonment in Curitiba, celebrities and supporters held constant vigil outside demanding his release.

But many other Brazilians hold him responsible for the massive kickback scheme uncovered by the Car Wash investigation and for the deep recession that ended 13 years of the Workers Party rule. They are now urging Congress to rewrite the Constitution to allow for imprisonment after conviction on appeal.

Shasta Darlington reported and wrote from Brazil and Taylor Barnes and Flora Charner from Atlanta.