SÃO PAULO – During an interview with an Argentinian TV station aired on March 30, Pope Francis claimed that Brazil’s President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, convicted of bribery and imprisoned in 2018, and former President Dilma Rousseff, impeached due to alleged budgetary manipulation in 2016, were both victims of judicial persecution.

His comments sparked anger among the supporters of former President Jair Bolsonaro and other conservatives.

The pontiff’s one-hour-long interview with journalist Gustavo Sylvestre of the Argentinian news channel C5N was recorded prior to his hospitalization on March 29. They discussed several themes, including Latin American politics and the Argentinian upcoming elections in October.

At this point, Sylvestre asked him about the lawfare thesis, the alleged instrumentalization of the juridical system by political forces in order to persecute and criminalize electoral opponents.

Many left-wing leaders in the region claim that they have been subjected to lawfare, like Argentinian Vice President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, convicted in 2022 for corruption, and Lula, who was going to run for president against Bolsonaro in 2018 and ended up being arrested and impeded to do so.

“Lawfare begins… the means of communication open the way. ‘We have to prevent that person from reaching that office,’ and then they hit the person. […] They disqualify the person and raise suspicions of a crime,” described Pope Francis.

The pontiff added that a huge casefile is then produced, one that does not contain evidence of a crime, but “the (large) volume of the summary” is enough to get the person convicted.

“Where is the crime? That is how Lula was convicted,” the pope went on.

Then-federal judge Sérgio Moro of Curitiba, leader of Operation Car Wash – a high-profile judicial task force against political corruption – ruled Lula guilty of bribery in 2017 for allegedly being the owner of an apartment in the coastal city of Guarujá, São Paulo State.

The apartment was supposedly bought and renovated by the building company OAS and given to Lula and his (now deceased) wife Marisa in exchange for favorable conditions in dealings with the state oil company Petrobras.

The conviction was confirmed by two higher courts and Lula spent 580 days in prison between 2018 and 2019. During that time, Lula was also convicted by another Car Wash judge of bribery for a similar case, in which OAS and the building company Odebrecht renovated a ranch that was supposedly owned by Lula.

In March of 2021, the Supreme Court Justice Edson Fachin annulled his sentences for considering that the cases were out of Moro’s – and his substitute’s – jurisdiction.

The Supreme Court also considered Moro biased in his conduction of the process. In 2019, hundreds of messages exchanged through an instant messaging service between Car Wash prosecutors and Moro had been leaked by a hacker and published by The Intercept’s journalist Glenn Greenwald.

The messages suggested that the judge guided the prosecutors and helped them to build the charges against Lula and other politicians. Their exchange also suggested the Car Wash agents had Lula and his allies as special targets, and that they instrumentalized the press to create in the public opinion a mood against the defendants.

The Car Wash prosecutors – especially its leader, Deltan Dallagnol – and Moro always denied the veracity of the leaked messages and accused Greenwald of publishing material obtained through illegal means.

With the Supreme Court’s decision, the cases were taken to Brasília and the prosecutors decided to close the file on them because the statute of limitations of Lula’s alleged crimes would expire before new inquiries were carried out. Lula recovered his political rights and was able to run for president in 2022, beating Bolsonaro.

The fact that Moro accepted Bolsonaro’s invitation to be his Minister of Justice and Public Security between January of 2019 and April of 2020 further increased the opinion among many Brazilians that he had always been an opponent of Lula.

In 2022, he was elected for the Senate and is now part of the opposition to Lula. Dallagnol was elected for Congress and is also an opponent of the government.

In the interview with Sylvestre, Pope Francis also mentioned Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment in 2016.

“What happened to Dilma Rousseff? […] A woman of clean hands, an excellent woman,” he said.

In December of 2015, when she was in her second term as president, the Congress opened an impeachment process against her due to the accusation of budget manipulation. According to her accusers, Rousseff was using funds of state-run banks to pay for social programs, something that is not allowed according to Brazilian legislation.

Many of Rousseff’s supporters claim that such a maneuver was common in previous administrations and that no president had been impeached for that reason before her.

The pontiff’s comments were received with discomfort by the opponents of Lula’s and Rousseff’s Workers’ Party in Brazil, including Traditionalist Catholics.

“One must say that it causes perplexity in numerous Catholics to see Pope Francis explicitly supporting left-wing leaders who do not hide their intent to implement public policies contrary to Catholic morals,” Frederico Viotti, a spokesperson for the Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira Institute, told Crux.

Viotti noted that many people in Brazil had the impression that the Supreme Court analyzed the evidence in Lula’s cases and then decided to release him from prison, something that did not happen.

“Such impression was reinforced by the propaganda of leftist means of communication and may have influenced Pope Francis in his commentary about the lack of evidence in Lula’s conviction,” he said.

But the case itself was not considered by the Supreme Court, Viotti added.

“Its ruling [to revert Lula’s conviction] was due to procedural matters. We should recall that the evidence against Lula was re-examined in a higher court by three federal judges, who kept his conviction,” he said.

In Viotti’s opinion, the pope’s statements “demonstrate either his ignorance of the Brazilian juridical system or a leftist prejudice.”

On the other side, Progressive Catholics like Daniel Seidel, the Secretary General of the bishops’ conference’s Justice and Peace Commission, celebrated Pope Francis’ remarks on Lula and Dilma Rousseff.

“He is committed to the truth and is not worried about potential damage to his popularity. He has a prophetic voice and wants people to reflect. That is why he talked about lawfare in Latin America,” Seidel told Crux.

In his opinion, the pontiff used Lula’s case almost as a parable of what is happening in Argentina with Cristina Kirchner.

In December of 2022, she was convicted of corruption due to her alleged participation, along with her now deceased husband – former President Néstor Kirchner – in a scheme to divert government funds in Santa Cruz province, where Néstor was a governor for years before becoming president.

They were accused of being the de facto owners of a building company that was hired by the government to conduct most road works in the province.

Cristina has always denied all charges and accused the judiciary system and the press of lawfare against the kirchnerists.

“That process is happening all over the world. It is weakening democracy and favoring the interests of the big corporations. There is an offensive now in Argentina, but Brazil came first,” Seidel added, saying that the higher courts in Brazil at first neglected the problem, and only took action against it when political violence began to impact the Brazilian society as a whole.

That was not the first time that Pope Francis expressed his sympathy for Lula. In May of 2019, when the president was serving his sentence in Curitiba, the pontiff answered a letter he had sent to the Vatican.

The pope expressed his condolences to Lula for the then recent deaths of his wife, his brother, and his grandson, manifesting his “spiritual closeness” with him and asking him to keep trusting in God.

Mentioning the celebrations of Easter, the pontiff affirmed that thanks to Jesus’ resurrection, humanity can have hope and reach the “serene and profound joy of those who believe that, in the end, good will defeat evil, truth will defeat lie, and Salvation will defeat condemnation.”

That paragraph was largely reproduced by the Workers’ Party and the president’s backers as a signal of the pope’s support to Lula’s juridical battle.

“His letter had great impact at that time because the whole society believed that Lula’s conviction had been fair, except for his supporters,” said Francisco Borba Ribeiro Neto, director of the Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo’s Faith and Culture Center.

After the suspicions raised about Operation Car Wash and Lula’s political rehabilitation – with the support of former political opponents who had approved his conviction years ago and now question its legality – most Brazilians tend to think that there was something wrong in the case against the president.

“So, the pontiff’s remarks did not shock the public opinion at this moment. Only the staunchest Bolsonaro supporters, who could not accept his defeat last year, were bothered by them,” Ribeiro Neto argued.

Most of that segment is already critical of Pope Francis, so his frank declarations should not damage his popularity in Brazil, he said.

“If that upright attitude may displease some Catholics, at the same time Pope Francis reinforces his image as a sincere leader who does not hide what he thinks. It is probably part of his charm and many people like that,” Ribeiro Neto concluded.