Supporters of Brazil’s former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva protest outside the Supreme Federal Court in Brasilia, Brazil, Nov 7, 2019.

BRASILIA – Brazil’s Supreme Court decided on Thursday to end mandatory imprisonment of convicted criminals after they lose their first appeal, restoring the previous rule that they should be allowed to exhaust all their appeal options before being locked up.

The politically charged re-interpretation of Brazil’s penal code could lead to the release of dozens of high-profile convicts, including former leftist president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, jailed last year for taking bribes.

By a 6-5 vote, the court overturned a three-year-old rule that contributed to the success of Brazil’s biggest corruption investigation, the so-called Car Wash operation that put dozens of company executives and politicians in jail for bribes and kickbacks.

The prospect of serving immediate prison time after losing a first appeal encouraged suspects to negotiate plea deals with prosecutors, providing them with information that helped unravel the biggest graft scheme in Brazil’s history.

Lula was jailed in July 2018 for eight years and 10 months after he was found guilty of taking bribes from engineering firms in return for government contracts. His lawyers are expected to swiftly file for his release at the lower court that convicted him.

Lula governed Brazil from 2003 to 2010, its first working class president. He left office with sky-high popularity ratings thanks to social policies that raised millions from poverty, but his critics say he ruined the country by allowing corruption to flourish.

Lula’s release would heighten tensions in a polarized nation that elected far-right President Jair Bolsonaro last year. Lula had been favorite to win the 2018 election but his imprisonment barred him from running.

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