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BRASÍLIA: Brazil's former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva was sentenced to nearly 10 years in prison for graft in a stark fall from grace for the iconic leftist leader.

Lula, who ruled Brazil from 2003-2010, was convicted and handed a 9.5-year prison term on Wednesday for accepting a luxury seaside apartment and $1.1 million, the latest twist in a giant corruption probe engulfing Latin America's largest economy.

But anti-corruption judge Sergio Moro said the 71-year-old Lula would remain free pending an appeal -- something his lawyers immediately said they would lodge.

"We are appealing and will prove his innocence," the lawyers said in a statement sent to AFP.

The conviction nevertheless landed a heavy blow on the prospect of Lula making a political comeback in presidential elections due in October next year.

The verdict also sent a dramatic message to much of Brazil's political class that they, too, risked falling afoul of the anti-graft drive.

Even the current president, Michel Temer, has been charged with taking bribes and several of his ministers have resigned after corruption claims were made.

The sea change has come about because of Operation "Car Wash," a sweeping probe looking into a giant embezzlement and kickbacks scheme involving state-owned oil group Petrobras, construction firms and several political parties -- Lula's Workers' Party chief among them.

- Lula denies charges -

But while many Brazilians welcome the long-overdue clean-up, the uncertainty is hobbling their country's struggle to exit from a historic recession.

The verdict against Lula "all but rules him out of the running for next year's presidential election," said Capital Economics, an economic analysis firm.

It said the court's decision was "likely to give a near-term boost to Brazilian markets" as the likelihood waned of Lula, a former union leader, returning to power and quashing needed economic reforms championed by Temer.

Lula has repeatedly denied taking any bribes during or after his presidency.

He has described the investigation against him as a campaign to prevent his return to power.

The Workers' Party called Lula's conviction and sentence "an attack on democracy" and Brazil's constitution, accusing the judge of bias.

Lula was "serene" upon receiving the news, though he felt "a natural indignation, like anyone convicted without proof," said one of his lawyers, Cristiano Zanin Martins.

Another lawyer, Valeska Zanin Martins, added: "They want to leave Lula out of the presidential race, and Lula leads the polls."

The conviction focused on allegations that Lula received the triplex apartment and cash as bribes from one of Brazil's biggest construction companies, OAS.

The judge ordered that the apartment be confiscated.

"Between the crimes of corruption and money laundering, there are sufficient grounds for sentences totaling nine years and six months of incarceration," Moro said in his verdict.

Copyright AFP (Agence France-Press), 2017

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