efe-epaRecife, Brazil

Former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva on Sunday harshly criticized the government of President Jair Bolsonaro, accusing him of "destroying the country" and "fomenting hatred" during a rally in northeastern Brazil, his political stronghold, nine days after being released from prison.

Lula, who after a decision by the Supreme Court recovered his freedom after 580 days behind bars, was given a thunderous ovation by the thousands of his supporters - many wearing t-shirts with his image - who had gathered starting at midday on the Our Lady of Carmo Square, the central plaza of Recife, capital of Pernambuco state, to participate in the "Lula Is Free Festival."

The 74-year-old ex-president walked out of prison on Nov. 8 - after remaining incarcerated for a year-and-a-half - after the high court ruled that a person cannot be imprisoned until after they have exhausted all their constitutionally guaranteed appeals.

Lula had been imprisoned on April 7, 2018, to serve an eight-year-and-10-month sentence for corruption after being found guilty for the third time of accepting a bribe, specifically a beachside apartment, from the OAS construction company in exchange for benefiting the firm in the awarding of contracts with Petrobras, Brazil's semi-public oil company.

Lula, who still has an appeal pending that has already been presented before the Supreme Court, although the high court has not yet ruled upon it, has always asserted his innocence and has insisted that his imprisonment was politically motivated to ensure that ultrarightist presidential candidate Bolsonaro could win the election in October 2018.

At the rally on Sunday, Lula once again blamed former Judge Sergio Moro - Bolsonaro's current Justice Minister, equivalent to the US Attorney General - for orchestrating, along with Bolsonaro himself, "the gang" that put him in jail.

"I could have gone to a (foreign) embassy or to another country, but I preferred to go to jail because I wanted to unmask Moro, Bolsonaro and Operation Car Wash," said Lula in his speech to the crowd.

Operation Car Wash is an ongoing corruption investigation originally headed by Moro that began as a probe into money laundering in Brazil but quickly expanded into something much greater, uncovering a vast and intricate web of political and corporate racketeering that has snared many politicians of all political stripes.

"They are destroying the country, they are destroying hope. They are fostering the militia in this country and nourishing hatred," Lula added - referring to Bolsonaro and his administration - amid the cheers of his supporters.

The leftist ex-president said he had put up with being behind bars for so long by thinking about the millions of Brazilians who are living in worse conditions than him, adding that he will continue his struggle to achieve better living conditions for people.

"I'm a 74-year-old man with the energy of a 30-year-old and the tenacity of a 20-year-old. I'm not going to stop fighting so that our children may live a better life than us," he emphasized.

Lula was born in the Pernambuco town of Garanhuns in October 1945.

The Recife festival to pay tribute to Lula and which was scheduled when he was still behind bars, features more than 40 cultural attractions, most of them musical performances by artists such as the well-known Chico Cesar, one of the icons of Brazilian popular music, and the Brazilian-Mexican group Francisco el Hombre.