CURITIBA, Brazil - (REUTERS) Brazilian prosecutors filed corruption charges on Wednesday against former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, his wife and six others in the sprawling Petrobras kickback scandal, dealing a big blow to the popular leader's chances of a comeback.
This was the first time Lula, still Brazil's most popular politician despite corruption accusations against him and his Workers Party, was charged by federal prosecutors for involvement in the massive graft scheme at the state-run oil company.
Lula's case will go before crusading anti-corruption Judge Sergio Moro, who has jailed dozens of executives and others involved in the scheme.
Lula could face arrest for receiving a luxury apartment on the coast of Sao Paulo from one of the engineering and construction firms at the center of the bribery scandal. Lula has denied ownership of the three-floor condo in Guarujá.
Federal police urged prosecutors last month to bring charges against Lula and his wife, accusing them of receiving some 2.4 million reais ($747,896) in benefits from the builder OAS in relation to the apartment.
The charges announced by prosecutors in a statement were also leveled against Leo Pinheiro, former head of the OAS engineering firm accused of giving gifts to Lula in ex change for favors, and the head of Lula's foundation, Paulo Okamotto.
Lula, a charismatic former union leader who was a two-term president from 2003 to 2010, has separately been indicted by a court in Brasilia for obstruction of justice in a case related to an attempt to persuade a defendant in the Petrobras scandal not to turn state's witness.
Lula's fall, and that of the leftist party he founded in 1980, has been dramatic.
Last month, his protégé and successor as president, Dilma Rousseff, was removed from office in an impeachment trial.
Rousseff's fall was driven by Brazil's worst recession since the 1930s and its biggest ever corruption scandal, which has implicated dozens of politicians from her ruling coalition, including several in the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party led by current President Michel Temer.
Lula, 70, has not ruled out running again for president in 2018, but a criminal conviction would bar him from being a candidate for the next eight years.
A one-time shoeshine boy and union leader who led massive strikes against Brazil's military dictatorship, contributing to its downfall, he was elected the nation's first working class president in 2002 after three failed campaigns.
Wildly popular with Brazil's poor, Lula's social policies helped yank millions out of poverty and into the middle class, and he left office in 2010 with an 83-percent approval rating and an economy that grew at a blistering 7.5 percent.
But two years ago, as the Petrobras probe became public, prosecutors began to slowly put Lula in their crosshairs.
Many prosecutors and investigators say they cannot imagine such a powerful figure was unaware of the institutionalized corruption and political kickbacks taking place at Petrobras and other state-run companies.
Marcos Troyjo, a former Brazilian diplomat and co-director of Columbia University's BRICLab in Rio de Janeiro, said he thinks Wednesday's charges are the first of many Lula will be facing in the coming months.
"That means the Workers Party, which may have thought it would move comfortably into the opposition after Dilma's impeachment, will confront extreme challenges," said Troyjo. "It's certainly the beginning of the end to Lula's presidential aspirations for 2018."
Recent polls have shown that despite the investigations targeting Lula and the Workers Party, he would be a favorite to win the next presidential election - by far the Workers Party's best hope of regaining power.
"But these charges are likely too big a blow to the political myth of Lula, to the candidate Lula and to the Workers Party as a whole for that to happen," Troyjo said.