By Eduardo Simões

SAO PAULO (Reuters) - Former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, a leftist leader who is topping polls for the 2018 election, on Thursday told supporters protesting his conviction for corruption charges that his political opponents were persecuting him in the courts.

In the main avenue of São Paulo, Brazil's biggest city, Lula took aim at Judge Sérgio Moro, who sentenced him to nearly 10 years in prison but allowed him to remain free on appeal, and the prosecutors leading the so-called Car Wash graft investigation.

"Since they're not able to defeat me through politics, they want to defeat me with lawsuits," he said.


Police declined to estimate of the number of people attending the protests in São Paulo, which Lula's Workers Party helped organize. Smaller rallies took place in other major cities, including Rio de Janeiro, Belo Horizonte, Porto Alegre and Fortaleza.

During his two terms as president between 2003 and 2010, Lula, a former union leader, helped to lift millions from poverty in Latin America's largest economy. But he also contributed to boosting the public deficit as a spending spree aimed at tackling the global financial crisis extended for years to come.

Should an appeals court uphold Lula's conviction, a ruling which is expected to take at least eight months, Lula will be barred from running for office next year.

(Reporting by Eduardo Simões; Writing by Bruno Federowski; Editing by Leslie Adler)

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