The decision was the latest legal setback for da Silva, who was wildly popular as president in 2003-2010 but has since been dogged by corruption allegations amid a mushrooming graft scandal.
A Brazilian appellate court delivered a big blow to former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva on Wednesday, unanimously upholding his graft conviction and even adding years to his prison sentence in a ruling that could keep him out of the October presidential election for which he has been leading in the polls.
The decision was the latest legal setback for da Silva, who was wildly popular as president in 2003-2010 but has since been dogged by corruption allegations amid a mushrooming graft scandal that has taken down top politicians and business executives in Latin America's largest nation.
While da Silva has several avenues to still get on the October ballot — and his lawyers have indicated they will appeal any setback — the ruling further complicates a political comeback. Many argue that sidelining him could anger millions of his supporters and shake the country's political stability.
A three-judge panel spent the morning hearing arguments from both sides over da Silva's conviction on corruption and money launder charges alleging that he took a payoff from a construction company in return for contracts.
Judge Joao Pedro Gebran Neto was the first to vote. He went beyond the original conviction, saying that jail time should be 12 years and one month, an increase of more than two years from the sentence levied in July.
"I consider the culpability in the case extremely high," said Gebran Neto. "This is about a former president and a corruption scheme that prevailed for years."
The following two judges agreed on all counts.
"Nobody can be absolved just because he's powerful," said Judge Leandro Paulen, referring to da Silva's large following.
"The evidence has stood up to criticism, confrontation and counterpoint," said Judge Victor dos Santos Laus, adding: "The accusation is proven."
While da Silva faces corruption charges in six more cases, the 72-year-old has been leading preference polls for October's race.
His Workers' Party called the decision a "farce" and defiantly declared it would proceed with its plan to register da Silva as its presidential candidate in August.
"We will fight in defense of democracy in all forums, in the judiciary and mainly on the streets," party chairwoman Gleisi Hoffmann said in a statement. "If some think the story ends with today's decision, they are very wrong because we do not surrender before injustice."
With tensions high, authorities closed streets around the courthouse in the southern city of Porto Alegre as the hearing opened. Helicopters hovered above, police patrolled on horses and sharpshooters stood on rooftops.
The case was so closely watched that in the afternoon Brazil took over much of Twitter: Three of the top 10 topics trending worldwide were about the case.
The top trending topic was the hashtag "MoluscoNaCadeia," or "MolluskInJail" — a play on the fact that da Silva is universally known as "Lula," which is a common nickname for Luiz but also means squid in Portuguese.
In this deeply polarized, continent-sized nation, the case is part of a larger narrative, with supporters and detractors of da Silva offering their own interpretations. Da Silva and his supporters say it and the other corruption cases are an attempt to keep him from returning to office. They argue it's part of a conspiracy by Brazil's elite seeking to keep out a president like da Silva who focuses on the poor and levels the playing field in one of the world's most unequal nations.
Detractors note that da Silva and his left-leaning Workers' Party were running the country while a widespread corruption scheme siphoned billions from state oil company Petrobras and helped Latin America's largest economy fall into its worst recession in decades.
"I supported Lula long ago, but he became one of the crooks," said Diego Esteves, a university student in Porto Alegre.
Rodrigo Maia, speaker of the lower house of Congress, said that despite having long been a political foe of da Silva, he wasn't celebrating Wednesday.
"In politics, the best forum for different ideas to do battle is an electoral campaign," Maia said in a statement. "But the campaign has not begun and it was the judiciary that spoke today. It's necessary to listen to it and respect it."
Over the last several years, the "Car Wash" corruption investigation has landed dozens of the nation's elite, from businessmen to politicians, in jail. Several construction companies formed a de facto cartel, which decided which would get inflated contracts that included billions of dollars in bribes and kickbacks to politicians, company officials and political parties in the form of campaign contributions.
The judges on Wednesday reviewed a case involving a beachfront apartment in Guaruja, a city in the state of Sao Paulo. Prosecutors argued da Silva was promised the apartment, owned by construction company OAS, in exchange for contracts. In plea bargain testimony, the company's CEO said the apartment was slated for da Silva.
"Numerous tax notes, testimony and messages between executives indicated the apartment was being prepared for the former president," said prosecutor Mauricio Gotardo Gerum.
Da Silva and his lawyers have always argued the case defied logic as the former president never owned the apartment.
"It's clear from the records that (da Silva) never received the keys or spent a single day or night" at the property, lawyer Cristiano Zanin said.
Luis Henrique Machado, a criminal lawyer not associated with the case, said higher courts might take issue with much of the evidence because it doesn't prove that the apartment ever belonged to da Silva.
Much to come
"There is still a lot to come" in this case, said Machado.
In July, Judge Sergio Moro sentenced da Silva to 9½ years in prison. Moro has been the presiding judge in many of the major "Car Wash" cases and his convictions have rarely been overturned.
Many Brazilians see Moro as a hero fighting endemic corruption, while others see him as deeply partisan and intent on keeping the left from returning to power.
Speaking from his home city of Sao Bernardo do Campo before the ruling, da Silva, a former union leader, said he was "absolutely certain" that he did not commit a crime. On Tuesday, he told supporters that only death would keep him from returning to politics.
By law, a criminal conviction that has been upheld on appeal makes a Brazilian ineligible to run for office. However, da Silva can appeal the conviction to higher courts. Ultimately, the country's Supreme Electoral Tribunal makes decisions about candidacies, and the ballot won't be set until August.
"This is not a simple trial. This is us against them," said school teacher Claudio Thomas, who likened the atmosphere to a soccer competition, adding: "The championship does not end here."