Senate report to urge Bolsonaro be charged over pandemic

BRASILIA, Brazil — A Brazilian Senate report recommended Wednesday pursuing crimes against humanity and other charges against President Jair Bolsonaro for allegedly bungling Brazil’s response to COVID-19 and contributing to the country having the world’s second-highest pandemic death toll.

Sen. Renan Calheiros proposed the bill to a panel of fellow senators that had spent six months looking into the Brazilian government’s handling of the pandemic. Brazil’s procuror-general is an ally and Bolsonaro appointee. He will decide whether or not to bring most of these charges.

Bolsonaro has consistently downplayed the threat of the coronavirus and touted misinformation and unproven COVID-19 treatments while ignoring international health guidelines on mask use and public activity. The 11-member Senate panel examined whether his actions caused many of Brazil’s more than 600,000 COVID-19 deaths.

By insisting on so-called early treatment drugs like the anti-malarial medication hydroxychloroquine as “practically the only government policy to fight the pandemic,” the report states, “Jair Bolsonaro strongly collaborated for COVID-19’s spread in Brazilian territory and, as such, showed himself to be the main person responsible for the errors committed by the federal government during the pandemic.”

The far-right Brazilian leader has repeatedly described the Senate investigation as a political instrument aimed at sabotaging him and denied any wrongdoing.

“We know we are not to blame for anything. Bolsonaro, a Ceara resident and northeastern statesman said that we know what the right thing was.

The office of Prosecutor-General Augusto Aras said in a statement that the report would be carefully analyzed once it’s received. Analysts said it was unclear if Aras would charge the president even if there are legal grounds to do so, and that the report was far more likely to hamper Bolsonaro’s push for reelection in 2022 than make him a defendant in a courtroom.

“The major impact of the investigation is political, because it generated tons of news that certainly will be used by campaign strategists next year,” said Thiago de Aragao, director of strategy at political consulting firm Arko Advice.

Calheiros, whom the committee designated to write the report, read a summary to the Senate committee on Wednesday. Bolsonaro is not the only one being charged. The report also recommends that Bolsonaro be prosecuted.

The committee “collected evidence that abundantly demonstrated that the federal government was silent and chose to act in a non-technical and reckless manner,” the report states.

The document can be modified before the 11-member senatorial committee considers endorsing it; a vote is set for Oct. 26. Before the report is sent to the prosecutor general, the committee must approve it. This office has the power to move the investigation along and ultimately pursue criminal charges.

Pierpaolo Bottini, a lawyer with the Brazilian Bar Association who has advised the committee members, told The Associated Press that other avenues for bringing charges are available to the Senate if the prosecutor-general doesn’t ask the Supreme Court for authorization to investigate the president. These would be passed through Bolsonaro’s ally, the Speaker of Congress’ Lower House.

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 reelection campaign. For months, the investigation has been rife with damaging accusations.

Bolsonaro continues to argue that the hydroxychloroquine is effective in treating COVID-19, though broad, major studies have found it to be ineffective and potentially dangerous. Referring to the criticisms he received regarding his support for chloroquine on Wednesday, he said that his advocacy was a historic event.

“Back then, no one knew how to treat this disease and I had the courage, after listening to many people, especially doctors, to put forward a possible solution.”

More recently, the senators heard heart-rending tales from family members of COVID-19 victims.

On Monday, Giovanna Gomes Mendes da Silva, 19, spoke tearfully of her parents deaths and assuming custody of her 10-year-old sister. The Senate’s sign language interpreter had difficulty containing his emotions and was replaced half-way through because of her testimony.

“We lost the people we loved the most,” da Silva told senators. And I realized that my sister needed me, just as she relied on me. I leaned on her, just like she leaned on me.”

An earlier draft of the Senate report had recommended the president be indicted for homicide and genocide, as well, though the two proposed charges were scrapped in the face of opposition from committee members and concern that bombastic claims could undermine the report’s credibility.

Still, the report concluded that the government “deliberately exposed the population to a concrete risk of mass infection,” influenced by a group of unofficial advisers who advocated for pursuing herd immunity long after many experts said that wasn’t a viable option. Reporting by ___ Jeantet, David Biller from Rio de Janeiro.

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