SAO BERNARDO DO CAMPO, Brazil, April 6 (Reuters) - Brazil's former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva on Friday spent his last hours before a 12-year prison sentence surrounded by supporters who vowed to fight for his right to run in a presidential race he is currently leading.
Ordered to turn himself in after he lost an appeal of his bribery conviction, Lula huddled with aides and allies at the headquarters of the steelworkers union in metropolitan Sao Paulo where he got his start in Brazilian politics.
"We are gathered here with our supporters in the birthplace of the Workers Party ... so we can combat this injustice," said party leader Gleisi Hoffman. "Lula is innocent!"
Lula's lawyers filed a last-minute request to an appeals court to suspend the prison order, arguing they had not been given time to exhaust procedural appeals. It was not clear if the higher court would intervene before a 5 p.m. (2000 GMT)deadline for the former president to turn himself in.
Hundreds of die-hard supporters in red shirts thronged outside the union offices late into the night on Thursday, cheering spirited defenses of Lula, who sought refuge inside. Many remained camped outside the building early on Friday.
The same union was the launchpad for Lula's political career nearly four decades ago, when he led nationwide strikes that helped to end Brazil's 1964-85 military government.
Lula's everyman style and unvarnished speeches electrified masses long governed by the elite and eventually won him two terms as president, from 2003 to 2011, when he oversaw robust economic growth and falling inequality amid a commodities boom.
He left office with sky-high approval of 83 percent and was called "the most popular politician on Earth" by former U.S. President Barack Obama.
Lula's downfall has been as stunning as the unprecedented corruption probes that have convulsed Brazil for the last four years, jailing dozens of politicians and business leaders long considered above the law.
Federal Judge Sergio Moro, who has handled the bulk of cases in Brazil's biggest-ever graft investigation and issued Lula's prison order, wrote that he should not be handcuffed and would have a special cell in the city of Curitiba, where he stood trial.
Lula was convicted last year for taking bribes from an engineering firm in return for help landing contracts with state-run oil company Petroleo Brasileiro SA.
Brazil's Supreme Court on Thursday rejected Lula's plea to remain free until he exhausts all his appeals, in a case he calls a political witch hunt.
The ruling likely ends his political career and blows October's election wide open, leaving Brazil's left without an obvious candidate to regain power from the unpopular President Michel Temer.
Under Brazilian electoral law, a candidate is forbidden from running for office for eight years after being found guilty of a crime. Rare exceptions have been made in the past, and the final decision would be made by the top electoral court if and when Lula officially files to be a candidate.
Brazilian financial markets rallied on Thursday after the Supreme Court cleared the way for Lula's imprisonment, which increased the chances of a market-friendly candidate winning the election, according to analysts and political foes.
A defiant Workers Party, founded by Lula, said its supporters would take to the streets to defend his right to run.
Cássio Gonçalves, a labor safety specialist at the union headquarters, said the party had not considered alternatives in the presidential race: "We have no other plan. Plan A, B and C is Lula, because he is innocent. He will be our president." (Reporting by Gram Slattery Additional reporting by Eduardo Simoes in Sao Paulo Writing and additional reporting by Brad Brooks Editing by Brad Haynes and Chizu Nomiyama)