Several probes target Brazil's Bolsonaro, but his COVID decisions are catching up to him first

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RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — As Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro's term wound down in the final days of December 2022, he had decided to skip the ritual of handing over the presidential sash to his successor, and instead made plans to travel abroad.

But there was a problem, according to a Federal Police indictment unveiled Tuesday: Bolsonaro didn’t have the necessary vaccination certificate required by U.S. authorities.

So Bolsonaro turned to his aide-de-camp, Mauro Cid, and asked him to insert false data into the public health system to make it appear as though he and his 12-year-old daughter had received the COVID-19 vaccine, according to the indictment.

Cid told police he tasked someone with the carrying out the deed, then printed out the certificates inside the presidential palace on Dec. 22 and hand-delivered them to Bolsonaro, according to detective Fábio Alvarez Shor, who signed the indictment.

It is Bolsonaro's first indictment since leaving office, and tampering with public records in Brazil is no trifling matter; should the prosecutor-general’s office decide to use the indictment to file charges at the Supreme Court, the 68-year-old politician could spend up to 12 years behind bars or as little as two years, according to legal analyst Zilan Costa. A separate indictment for criminal association carries a maximum jail time of four years, he said.

Bolsonaro, who didn't comment on Tuesday, previously denied any wrongdoing during questioning in May 2023.

In addition to the allegation Bolsonaro falsified records, another ongoing investigation seeks to determine whether he tried to sneak two sets of expensive diamond jewelry into Brazil and prevent them from being incorporated into the presidency’s public collection. Police are also probing his alleged involvement in the Jan. 8, 2023 uprising in the capital, soon after Lula took power. It resembled the U.S. Capitol riot in Washington two years prior and sought to restore Bolsonaro to power. Commanders who served under Bolsonaro have told police the former leader presented them with a plan for him to remain in power after he lost his 2022 reelection bid.

But it is his actions during the COVID-19 pandemic – which he called “a measly cold” as he brazenly flouted health restrictions and encouraged Brazilians to follow his example – that may have caught up with him first. After vaccines became available, he dismissed them as unnecessary, despite Brazil registering one of the highest death tolls in the world, and repeatedly said he would not receive a jab himself.

His administration ignored several offers from pharmaceutical company Pfizer to sell Brazil tens of millions of shots in 2020, and he openly criticized a move by Sao Paulo state’s governor to buy vaccines from Chinese company Sinovac when no other doses at hand.

Bolsonaro wasn't the only one indicted on Tuesday: Cid and 15 others were accused of involvement in the scheme to falsify records for themselves and others.

“The former president never ordered or knew that any of his advisors had produced vaccination certificates with ideologically false content,” three of Bolsonaro’s lawyers said in a statement released late Tuesday. “When he entered the U.S. at the end of December 2022, he was not asked for a vaccination certificate since, as President of the Republic, he was exempt from this requirement.”

Shor, the police detective, wrote in his indictment he is awaiting information from the U.S. Justice Department to “clarify whether those under investigation did make use of the false vaccination certificates upon their arrival and stay in American territory.” If so, further charges could be leveled against Bolsonaro, Shor wrote without specifying in which country.

His indictment breathed fresh life into a Senate committee inquiry that ended in October 2021 with a recommendation for nine criminal charges against Bolsonaro, alleging that he mismanaged the pandemic. Then prosecutor-general Augusto Aras, who was widely seen as a Bolsonaro ally, declined to move the case forward.

Aras’ successor, Paulo Gonet, met committee members Tuesday night. They requested that he reopen investigations stemming from their monthslong work that were shelved, and stressed the importance of carrying forward those already underway, according to a statement from the office of Sen. Omar Aziz, who chaired the committee.

Bolsonaro retains staunch allegiance among his political base, as shown by an outpouring of support last month, when an estimated 185,000 people clogged Sao Paulo’s main boulevard to decry what they — and the former president — characterize as political persecution.

The indictment will not turn off his backers and will only confirm his detractors’ suspicions, said Carlos Melo, a political science professor at Insper University in Sao Paulo.

“It is definitely worse for him in courts,” Melo said. “He could be entering a trend of convictions, and then arrest.”

Brazil’s top electoral court has already ruled Bolsonaro ineligible to run for office until 2030, on the grounds that he abused his power during the 2022 campaign and cast unfounded doubts on the country’s electronic voting system.

After losing the October 2022 election, he never conceded defeat. And with a fresh vaccination certificate in hand, according to the police indictment, he decamped for south Florida.

___ Savarese reported from Sao Paulo.