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Brazil’s supreme court authorizes investigation of Bolsonaro

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro outside the Planalto Palace in Brasília on Monday. (Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters)
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Brazil’s supreme court has authorized an investigation of alleged corruption and obstruction of justice by President Jair Bolsonaro after the country’s outgoing justice minister accused him of attempting to interfere with federal police probes.

The 60-day investigation, approved Monday by Supreme Federal Court Justice José Celso de Mello Filho, plunges Brazil into a new political crisis as the country struggles to contain Latin America’s largest coronavirus outbreak.

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Brazil’s popular justice minister, Sérgio Moro, resigned last week after saying Bolsonaro had fired the country’s top police commander to hinder investigations of his supporters and gain access to classified information.

“The president emphasized to me, explicitly, more than once, that he wanted someone who was a personal contact, whom he could call, from whom he could get information, intelligence reports,” Moro said.

“That really isn’t the role of the federal police to serve this kind of information,” he said.

Brazil's Justice Minister Sergio Moro resigned on April 24, accusing President Jair Bolsonaro of political meddling in law enforcement. (Video: Reuters)

Moro sent photos of messages he said he exchanged with the president that appeared to corroborate his claim to “National Journal,” Brazil’s most popular nightly news program.

Two of Bolsonaro’s sons, Flávio and Carlos, are under investigation for alleged embezzlement. The Folha de São Paulo news outlet reported last week that police are also investigating Carlos Bolsonaro for allegedly creating a fake-news ring to spread misinformation.

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The new probe of the president’s activities was requested by Attorney General Augusto Aras. It will be conducted by the federal police. The agency has a unit that conducts investigations requested by the supreme court. Aras has also asked the investigators to determine whether Moro’s allegations are false and defamatory.

President Bolsonaro called the allegations baseless. He said that he did not try to shield family members from police investigations and that the appointment of the head of police was his to decide. “The prerogative is mine, and the day I have to submit to any of my subordinates, I cease to be president of the republic,” he told reporters last week.

Bolsonaro was elected in 2018 on an anti-corruption platform in a country that had seen a string of presidents and other high-ranking officials accused, and in several cases convicted, of malfeasance. He quickly appointed Moro, the country’s most celebrated anti-corruption judge, to be his justice minister.

Moro rose to fame as the most prominent judge overseeing the vast Operation Car Wash corruption investigation, which has yielded more than 400 prosecutions in Brazil, upended the country’s political order and roiled the continent beyond. For a time, he was the closest thing Brazil had to a unifying figure.

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But the partnership between Bolsonaro and Moro derailed — due, Moro said, to Bolsonaro’s interference. Moro himself came under scrutiny last year when the Intercept published messages sent during the Car Wash probe that appeared to show the then-judge advising federal prosecutors on how to try their cases against the country’s political elite, both in his courtroom and in the press.

Moro’s departure has split the president’s base and frayed alliances in the congress.

Moro’s claims, if proved, could form the basis for an impeachment trial. A poll on Monday showed that 57 percent of Brazilians would support Bolsonaro’s impeachment. He could be the third president to be removed from office since the military dictatorship ended in the 1980s.

President Dilma Rousseff was impeached in 2016 over controversial allegations that she violated budget laws. President Fernando Collor de Mello was impeached in 1992 on charges of illicit enrichment and perjury.

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Bolsonaro has been criticized in Brazil and beyond for what is widely seen as his inadequate response to the coronavirus. The country has confirmed more than 67,000 cases and 4,600 deaths from covid-19, Latin America’s largest outbreak. With testing limited, both numbers are believed to be significant undercounts.

While state governors have imposed lockdowns, Bolsonaro has dismissed the virus as “a little flu” and urged Brazilians to get back to work. While some Brazilians have supported his calls, others have joined in nightly pot-banging protests from their houses and apartments.

Bolsonaro fired his health minister this month after they differed over social distancing. The minister, Luiz Henrique Mandetta, had repeatedly and publicly contradicted Bolsonaro on the coronavirus.

The headline on an earlier version of this report misstated the official who authorized the investigation of Bolsonaro. It was Justice José Celso de Mello Filho, not the chief justice, who is José Antonio Dias Toffoli.

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