RIO DE JANEIRO — Former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil may be released from prison as early as Friday, after a ruling from Brazil’s Supreme Court gave defendants the right to remain free while they exhaust appeals for criminal convictions.
In a six-to-five ruling handed down late Thursday, the court reversed itself on an issue that has far-reaching implications for corruption cases and could affect thousands of inmates, notably Mr. da Silva, who is universally known as “Lula.”
Previously, the court had established that a defendant could be ordered to start serving a sentence once a conviction was upheld by the first appeals court. That gave prosecutors valuable leverage to strike plea deals.
Now, defendants may remain free throughout an appeals process that can take several years.
Supporters of Mr. da Silva, 74, a leftist leader who governed Brazil from 2003 to 2010, celebrated the ruling as a triumph as they rallied outside the police building in the southern city of Curitiba where he has been imprisoned since April of last year.
Mr. da Silva was convicted of corruption and money laundering in July 2017 for accepting the use of a seaside apartment as part of a kickbacks scheme. He and his supporters contend that the case was manufactured to prevent him from running for a third term last year.
He was given a 12-year sentence in the apartment case and faces several other corruption charges. In February, Mr. da Silva was convicted in a second graft case and sentenced to 13 years in prison.
Mr. da Silva’s lawyers said in a statement on Friday that they intended to ask the judge overseeing his case to release him immediately based on the ruling.
“Lula never committed any crime and he was a victim of ‘lawfare,’” said the lawyers, Cristiano Zanin Martins and Valeska Martins, using a term that means weaponizing the legal system against rivals.
Thursday’s ruling stands to benefit thousands of prisoners in Brazil, including several other high-profile politicians convicted of corruption.
The prosecutors who handled Mr. da Silva’s case said they were disappointed by the ruling. In a statement, they said it contradicted “the sentiment of repudiation regarding impunity and the fight against corruption, which are priorities for the nation.”