Brazilian leader accused of crimes against humanity in pandemic response
By Jack Nicas
A Brazilian congressional panel is set to recommend that President Jair Bolsonaro be charged with “crimes against humanity,” asserting that he intentionally let the coronavirus rip through the country and kill hundreds of thousands in a failed bid to achieve herd immunity and revive Latin America’s largest economy.
A report from the panel’s investigation, excerpts from which were viewed by The New York Times ahead of its scheduled release this week, also recommends criminal charges against 69 other people, including three of Bolsonaro’s sons and numerous current and former government officials.
The panel had initially recommended in the report that Bolsonaro be charged with mass homicide and genocide against Indigenous groups in the Amazon, where the virus decimated populations for months after hospitals there ran out of oxygen. But less than a day after The Times and several Brazilian news outlets reported on those plans, several senators said that the accusations had gone too far.
Late Tuesday, on the eve of the scheduled release of the report, the committee removed the recommended charges of homicide and genocide, said Renan Calheiros, the centrist Brazilian senator who was the lead author of the report, just after midnight Wednesday local time.
It is at best uncertain whether the report from the 11-member panel — seven of them opponents of Bolsonaro — will lead to any actual criminal charges, given the political realities of the country.
But in deeply polarized Brazil, it reflects the depths of anger against a leader who refused to take the pandemic seriously. The report may prove a major escalation in the challenges confronting Bolsonaro, who took office in 2019, faces reelection next year and is suffering falling popularity.
The extraordinary accusations appear in a nearly 1,200-page report that effectively blames Bolsonaro’s policies for the deaths of more than 300,000 Brazilians, half of the nation’s coronavirus death toll, and urges the Brazilian authorities to imprison the president, according to the excerpts from the report and interviews with two of the committee’s senators.
“Many of these deaths were preventable,” Renan Calheiros said in an interview in his office late Monday. Calheiros, who is one of the longest-serving lawmakers in the Senate and a former chairman of the 81-member body, said of Bolsonaro: “I am personally convinced that he is responsible for escalating the slaughter.”
From the outset of the pandemic, Bolsonaro has gone out of his way to minimize the threat of the virus. As countries around the world locked down, and his own people began filling hospitals, he encouraged mass gatherings and discouraged masks. An avowed vaccine skeptic, he lashed out at any who dared criticize him as irresponsible.
Bolsonaro’s office did not respond to requests for comment, but the president has criticized the Senate’s investigation into his handling of the pandemic as politically motivated. “Did you know that I was indicted for homicide today?” he asked supporters after the first details leaked out. He later called Calheiros “dirty.”
The report’s findings culminate a six-month investigation by a special COVID-19 Senate committee that held more than 50 hearings and often led the nightly news broadcasts. They became must-see television in Brazil, featuring testimony about bribery schemes and disinformation operations. One lawmaker wore a bulletproof vest to testify that some vaccine purchases included kickbacks.
The report found that the president had pushed unproven drugs like hydroxychloroquine well after they had been shown to be ineffective for treating COVID-19 and that his administration caused a monthslong delay in the distribution of vaccines in Brazil by ignoring more than 100 emails from Pfizer. Instead, his government opted to overpay for an unapproved vaccine from India, the report said, a deal that was later canceled over suspicions of graft.
Creomar De Souza, an independent political analyst in Brasília, said in an interview before the last-minute changes to the report that while the committee’s hearings revealed a mishandling of the pandemic, “I didn’t see any concrete element that was strong enough to accuse the president of genocide or homicide.” He said seven senators who oppose the president effectively control the 11-member committee.
The committee was scheduled to release the report on Wednesday and then vote on it a week later. The group of seven opposition senators generally agrees on the report, Calheiros said, suggesting that it would be approved.
One of the four senators on the committee who support the president is his son, Flavio Bolsonaro. The report that he will vote on next week will recommend criminal charges against him, too.
In addition to the charge of crimes against humanity, the report recommends eight additional charges against Bolsonaro, including forging documents and incitement to crime.
If the report is approved, Brazil’s attorney general will have 30 days to decide whether to pursue criminal charges against Bolsonaro and the others named in the report. Brazil’s lower house in Congress would also have to approve charges against Bolsonaro. De Souza said that outcome was unlikely: Bolsonaro appointed the attorney general, who remains his supporter, and his supporters control the lower house.
Calheiros said that if the attorney general did not pursue charges against the president, the Senate committee would seek other potential legal avenues, including in Brazil’s Supreme Court and the International Criminal Court in The Hague.
If Bolsonaro is formally charged, he will be suspended from office for 180 days while the Supreme Court decides the case, said Irapuã Santana, a law professor at Rio de Janeiro State University. If convicted, he would be blocked from the presidency for eight years and face years in prison, Santana said. There is no death penalty in Brazil.
The committee’s report represents Bolsonaro’s biggest fight yet with Brazil’s Congress, though with the election nearing, it is likely to be far from the last.
As his poll numbers decline, Bolsonaro is seeking to push tax changes and a government overhaul through Congress to shore up his pitch to voters. There is also a looming fight over the federal debt and another committee investigating allegations that the president and his supporters spread online misinformation.
Although more than half of the country now disapproves of the job Bolsonaro is doing as president, he retains control in the lower house of Congress and has enough support in the Senate to block the opposition from a majority.
Bolsonaro called the virus a “little flu.” He joked that vaccines would turn people into alligators, prompting many Brazilians to get their vaccine shots in alligator costumes. And when he attended a United Nations meeting last month, New York’s vaccination rules for restaurants forced him and Brazil’s health minister to eat pizza on the sidewalk because Bolsonaro remains unvaccinated. The health minister tested positive for COVID-19 days later.
Bolsonaro’s views on the pandemic were amplified by a coordinated network of conservative pundits, social-media influencers and anonymous online profiles, who railed against lockdowns and masks, pushed unproven drugs, questioned vaccines and claimed that Brazil’s death count was exaggerated, according to the report.
The Senate committee accused Bolsonaro and his three eldest sons, who all hold elected office, of having constituted the “command nucleus” of the network. The committee’s report also corroborated stories in the Brazilian press that Bolsonaro’s government operated a so-called Cabinet of Hate out of government offices that directed online campaigns supporting the president’s goals and attacking his enemies.