Brazil’s senators to vote on report urging criminal charges for Bolsonaro over COVID-19 handling

A Brazilian Senate committee will vote Tuesday on a report recommending that President Jair Bolsonaro face a series of criminal indictments for actions that allegedly added to the world’s second-highest COVID-19 death toll.

The report is the culmination of the 11-member committee’s six-month investigation of the government’s handling of the pandemic. It calls for Bolsonaro to face charges ranging from charlatanism and inciting crime to misuse of public funds and crimes against humanity, to hold him responsible for many of Brazil’s more than 600,000 COVID-19 deaths.

If approved, the decision on whether to file charges would be up to Brazil’s prosecutor-general, a Bolsonaro appointee who is widely viewed as protecting the president. The allegation of crimes against humanity would need to be pursued by the International Criminal Court in the Netherlands. 

Regardless of whether the report leads to charges, it is expected to fuel criticism of the divisive president, whose approval ratings have slumped ahead of his 2022 re-election campaign — in large part because of Brazil’s high COVID-19 death toll. The investigation itself has for months provided a drumbeat of damaging allegations.

Since the start of the pandemic, Bolsonaro has sabotaged local leaders’ restrictions on activity aimed at stopping the virus’s spread, saying the economy needed to keep humming so the poor did not suffer worse hardship.

He has also insistently touted an anti-malaria drug long after broad testing showed it isn’t effective against COVID-19, assembled crowds without wearing masks and sowed doubt about vaccines.

Bolsonaro has defended himself by saying he was among the only world leaders courageous enough to defy political correctness and global health recommendations, and that he hasn’t erred in the slightest.

From left, Sens. Omar Aziz, Randolfe Rodrigues and Renan Calheiros attend a session by the commission investigating the government’s management of the COVID-19 pandemic at the Federal Senate in Brasilia on Tuesday. (Eraldo Peres/The Associated Press)

Sen. Renan Calheiros first presented the nearly 1,200-page report last week. The report, which Calheiros authored, says that by insisting on treatment with the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine as “practically the only government policy to fight the pandemic, Jair Bolsonaro strongly collaborated for COVID-19’s spread in Brazilian territory” and as a result is “the main person responsible for the errors committed by the federal government during the pandemic.”

Committee members in the so-called G7 group of senators who aren’t from Bolsonaro’s base agreed on most of the points in Calheiros’s report. They met Monday to hammer out final adjustments to the text.

Accused of spreading false news

Changes include recommending charges for 13 additional people, many of them former or current Health Ministry employees, as well as the governor of hard-hit Amazonas state, according to Calheiros.

The final report recommends charges against two companies and 79 people, including Bolsonaro; current and former members of his administration; dozens of allies; and the president’s three sons, who are politicians.

It also adds an additional violation for allegedly spreading false news following Bolsonaro’s live broadcast on social media last week claiming incorrectly that people in the U.K. who received two vaccine doses are developing AIDS faster than expected, the senator told The Associated Press.

Committee approval is needed before the report goes to the office of Prosecutor-General Augusto Aras, who could ask the Supreme Court for authorization to carry the investigation forward and eventually pursue charges. His office said the report will be carefully reviewed as soon as it is received.

The report also contains recommendations for two counts of “crime of responsibility,” which are grounds for impeachment.

Lower House Speaker Arthur Lira, a staunch Bolsonaro ally, would need to bring a vote on whether to open impeachment proceedings. That’s highly unlikely, considering Lira is currently sitting on more than 120 other impeachment requests, according to information from the Lower House.

Demonstrators demand the impeachment of Bolsonaro, at a protest in the capital Brasilia last July. Activists called for countrywide demonstrations amid allegations of potential corruption in the purchase of COVID-19 vaccines and his handling of the pandemic. (Eraldo Peres/The Associated Press)

Bolsonaro’s son, Sen. Flavio Bolsonaro, told journalists on Tuesday that the report is legally weak and politically motivated.

“The intent of some senators on the investigative committee is to cause the maximum amount of wear and tear on the president,” he said.

An earlier draft of Calheiros’s report had recommended the president also be indicted for homicide and genocide, but that was scrapped even before its presentation last week. Some committee members opposed the inclusion of those recommendations, while others expressed concern that bombastic claims could undermine the report’s credibility.

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