Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. (BETO BARATA/AGÊNCIA ESTADO)

Former President of Brazil Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, known universally as Lula, was sentenced to 9.5 years in prison yesterday for involvement in the corruption network of Petrobras, the Brazilian publication Veja reported. He is the first president in Brazil’s history to be sentenced in criminal court. Federal Judge Sergio Moro charged him with passive corruption and money laundering.

In Argentina, members of the Kirchnerist opposition see Moro’s ruling as a political ploy. “The conviction is aimed at preventing him from being elected president,” said former Foreign Minister Jorge Taiana of the Partido Justicialista, referring to reports that Lula planned to enter the race. “The right, together with those in power, wants to continue overruling the rights that workers acquired from Lula’s government.” Moro denies this. “It is necessary to recognize the former president’s merits,” he said in his ruling. “But no matter how high you are, the law is always above you.”

Moro found Lula guilty of accepting 3.7 million reais ($1.2 million) worth of bribes from engineering firm OAS S.A., which prosecutors said the company spent refurbishing a beach apartment for Lula in return for contracts with state oil company Petrobras.

His ruling marks a spectacular fall for the leader Barack Obama once called “the most popular politician on earth.” Lula won two terms as Brazil’s first president from the leftist Workers’ Party. He hand-picked his successor, Dilma Rousseff, who won two subsequent elections before she was impeached last year for violating budget regulation amid the same corruption scandal that now implicates Lula.

Lula was Brazil’s first working-class president. He left office with public approval ratings above 80 percent. He inaugurated the Bolsa Família program, which gave 12 million families cash in return for having their children vaccinated and keeping them in school. He brought 20 million Brazilians out of poverty. During his tenure, the country’s position in the world economy skyrocketed. He ran a high budget surplus and paid off all debt to the IMF. Brazil suffered less than most did from the 2008 economic crisis, with growth resuming by the end of 2009 and reaching 7.5 percent by 2010.

The former union leader faces four more corruption trials. He remains free on pending appeal. “For over three years, Lula has been subject to a politically motivated investigation,” his legal team wrote. “No credible evidence of guilt has been produced, and overwhelming proof of his innocence blatantly ignored.”