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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Brazil police recommend criminal charges against Bolsonaro

Former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro gestures during a rally in Sao Paulo, on Sunday, Feb. 25, 2024. Brazil’s federal police recommended that Bolsonaro be criminally charged in connection with a scheme to falsify his COVID-19 vaccine card, in part to travel to the United States during the pandemic. If federal prosecutors decide to pursue the charges, it would be the first time the former president has faced criminal charges. (Victor Moriyama/The New York Times)

By Jack Nicas

Brazil’s federal police recommended former President Jair Bolsonaro be criminally charged in a scheme to falsify his COVID-19 vaccine card, partly to travel to the United States during the pandemic, in the latest sign of criminal investigations closing in on the former president.

Federal prosecutors will now decide whether to pursue the case. If they do, it will be the first time the former president has faced criminal charges.

Brazilian police accused Bolsonaro of ordering a top aide to obtain falsified COVID vaccination records for himself and his daughter, 13, in late 2022, just before the former president traveled to Florida to stay for three months after his election loss.

Brazilian police said they were awaiting an answer from the U.S. Justice Department on whether Bolsonaro used a fake vaccination card to enter the United States, which could bring different criminal charges. At the time, most international visitors to the U.S. were required to show proof of COVID vaccination to enter the country.

Bolsonaro has said he did not receive a COVID vaccine, but he has denied accusations that he was involved in any plan to falsify his vaccination records. His lawyer said in a text message that he was still reviewing the accusations.

If he is convicted of forging his vaccine card, Bolsonaro could face prison time.

The federal police’s indictment is the first time the various criminal investigations into Bolsonaro have moved toward charges.

Bolsonaro has been subject to questioning and searches as part of several inquiries, including into the selling of watches and jewels he received as presidential gifts from Saudi Arabia and other countries, as well as accusations that he worked with top government officials to hatch a plan to try to hold onto power after his 2022 election loss.

Brazil’s electoral court has already ruled Bolsonaro ineligible for public office until 2030 for spreading false information about Brazil’s voting systems on state television, forcing him to sit out the next presidential contest in 2026.

During the pandemic, Bolsonaro was critical of the COVID vaccine, joking that it would turn people into crocodiles and instead promoting unproven treatments, such as hydroxychloroquine, an antimalarial drug.

His administration hesitated to secure vaccines when they were first being distributed, exacerbating the pandemic in Brazil, according to a Brazilian congressional investigation that recommended in 2021 that the former president be charged with “crimes against humanity,” among other charges, for his actions during the pandemic.

Prosecutors at the time did not charge him. More than 700,000 people have died in Brazil because of COVID, the second-highest national death count after the United States.

In May 2023, police searched Bolsonaro’s home, confiscated his cellphone and arrested one of his closest aides and two of his security guards as part of the investigation into the fake vaccination records.

In a complaint unsealed Tuesday, Brazil’s federal police said records showed that Bolsonaro’s personal aide, Lt. Col. Mauro Cid, and Cid’s wife used fake vaccination cards to enter the United States in 2022. Cid, who was arrested last year as part of the investigation, told police that once Bolsonaro found out Cid had a fake vaccine card, he ordered the aide to get him one, too, police said.

Police said records showed that on Dec. 21, 2022, an official in a suburb of Rio de Janeiro then entered false records into the city’s health database that Bolsonaro and his daughter had received two doses of Pfizer’s COVID vaccine earlier that year. Police said that during one of the two dates on which the records said Bolsonaro received a vaccine, the former president was not in the Rio de Janeiro suburb.

In addition to Cid, police said, several other allies of the former president falsified vaccination records in a similar scheme, some of whom used the records to accompany Bolsonaro to the United States. Police also recommended charges against them.

Bolsonaro spent his first three months after the presidency staying in a rented home near Disney World outside Orlando.

Bolsonaro entered the United States several other times while the country required visitors to show proof of vaccination, including to attend the U.N. General Assembly and to meet President Joe Biden in Los Angeles, though those 2022 trips preceded the plan described by investigators to falsify vaccine records.

In 2021, Bolsonaro, who was perhaps the only unvaccinated world leader at the U.N. General Assembly, opened that proceeding with a speech that said Brazil would not require anyone to get vaccinated. He added that he had recovered from COVID by using “off-label” drugs.

“History and science will hold everyone accountable,” he said.

During that trip, he and his entourage struggled to enter New York restaurants that required proof of vaccination. Instead, he posted a photo of his team eating pizza on the sidewalk. Bolsonaro’s health minister, who was biting a piece of pizza in the photo, tested positive for COVID hours after attending the U.N. meetings.

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