CURITIBA, Brazil -- The deposition of former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva on Wednesday for his alleged role in a monumental corruption scheme pits the country's most prominent politician against an investigative judge who has become wildly popular for his crusade against corruption.
Tens of thousands of demonstrators, most supporting Mr. da Silva but some backing the so-called Car Wash investigation, descended on this normally tranquil city as Judge Sergio Moro was to begin questioning the popular leftist leader for the first time. Brazilian prosecutors allege that Lula, as most Brazilians call him, was the "chief commander" of a yearslong corruption scheme that stole billions of dollars from state-controlled oil giant Petróleo Brasileiro SA, or Petrobras.
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"I'm here to help protect Lula's legacy," said Modesto Ferreira, a farmer who traveled 15 hours by bus to support Mr. da Silva. "There is an elite movement against Lula, but I don't think there's another politician in the world with as many supporters as he has."
The deposition, a video recording of which is expected to be made public later in the day, is shaping up to be an encounter that could define the lineup for the country's 2018 presidential election. Mr. da Silva, who faces trial on five indictments of corruption, influence-peddling and money-laundering charges, has publicly suggested he may run for president again.
Polling firm Datafolha published a recent poll showing the former union activist turned Workers' Party leader would comfortably emerge as one of the two winners in a first round of voting, with 30% support.
But Mr. da Silva would be banned from running if he is found guilty in any of the five trials he faces this year in cases centering on how construction companies overcharged Petrobras on projects, with the illegal funds then channeled to politicians. Many Brazilians will watch any video emerging from the deposition, in which the charismatic former president is expected to energetically defend himself and declare, as he repeatedly has, that he is innocent of the accusations.
"What is at stake will be the former president's public image and the possibility of him running for president in 2018," said Daniel Vargas, a law professor at the Getúlio Vargas Foundation in Rio de Janeiro. "Will the president keep his reputation or, in the end, will Judge Moro's heroic image prevail?"
Mr. da Silva, 71, who finished his two terms with record-high approval ratings in January 2011, is to be questioned on Wednesday in a small room in Curitiba's main courthouse about allegations that he and his wife received $1.2 million -- mainly in construction upgrades to a luxury beachfront apartment -- from a company that did business with Petrobras. The former president contends the apartment outside São Paulo never belonged to him and was renovated by a construction firm in hopes of convincing Mr. da Silva to buy it.
"It's not for me to prove that I am innocent," Mr. da Silva said earlier this year. "They must prove that the lies they are telling are true."
Mr. da Silva's lawyers say the investigation amounts to a political witch hunt and their client has been treated unfairly. That accusation brought out supporters, dressed in the red of Lula's Workers' Party, to a makeshift campground of tents near Curitiba's train station, where they chanted, "Lula, the warrior of the Brazilian people."
"We want Lula or someone like him in the presidency," said Valdemar Sieheneichler, 53, who came with 14 members of his family from a small town. "Brazil needs to belong to its people again."
Mr. Moro, who has convicted powerful businessmen and politicians since the Car Wash probe started in 2014, says he is a neutral investigator acting on the evidence, irrespective of politics.
"The interrogation is an opportunity for the former president to defend himself, and is a normal act of the [legal] process," Mr. Moro said of the investigation.
Adriana Moraes, 41, a Curitiba resident, came out with others to support Mr. Moro and his investigation.
"I think Moro is the only one who can stop the corruption in Brazil," she said. "The testimony today will further harm Lula's reputation. God forbid that he is elected president again."
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
May 10, 2017 12:35 ET (16:35 GMT)