Brazil President likely to face criminal charges over his handling of Covid-19 pandemic

Demonstrators hold crosses during a protest to pay tribute to Brazil"s 600,000 COVID-19 deaths and against Brazil"s President Jair Bolsonaro"s handling of the coronavirus disease pandemic, in Brasilia, Brazil, October 8, 2021.
More than 600,000 people have died from Covid-19 in Brazil

A Senate committee in Brazil has voted to recommend that President Jair Bolsonaro face charges over his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. Seven of the panel’s 11 members backed a report calling for nine charges to be filed against Mr Bolsonaro, including crimes against humanity. The committee chair, Senator Omar Aziz, will send the findings to Brazil’s prosecutor-general on Wednesday.

Mr Bolsonaro has maintained he is “guilty of absolutely nothing”. More than 600,000 people in Brazil are confirmed to have died from Covid-19, second only to the death toll in the United States. There is no guarantee this vote will lead to criminal charges for Mr Bolsonaro, as the report’s recommendations must now be assessed by Brazil’s prosecutor-general, a Bolsonaro appointee who is expected to protect the president.

The report alleges that Mr Bolsonaro’s government pursued a policy of allowing the coronavirus to rip through the country in the hope of achieving herd immunity. In addition to crimes against humanity, the senate committee has recommended charging him with eight other infractions, including incitement to crime, falsification of documents and the violation of social rights. Mr Bolsonaro is accused of misusing public funds and spreading fake news about the pandemic.

The 1,300-page report also recommended bringing charges against two corporations and 77 other people, including three of the president’s adult sons. Following the announcement, Senator Renan Calheiros, the centrist politician who was the report’s lead author, said that the “chaos of Jair Bolsonaro’s government will enter history as the lowest level of human destitution”. The vote concludes a six-month inquiry which has revealed scandals and corruption inside Brazil’s government.

Throughout the process, Mr Bolsonaro has insisted that his government “did the right thing from the first moment” of the pandemic and his allies have been quick to dismiss Tuesday’s recommendations as being driven entirely by “political and electoral” motivations. Today marked the end of a long process. Six months of hearings, scandals uncovered, a light shone on a government accused of recklessness.

Just before the vote, leading senators delivered impassioned speeches. Renan Calheiros, the man in charge of the final report, said that the inquiry had slowed down the clock of death in Brazil. The inquiry’s vice president Randolfe Rodrigues underlined how important the process had been to put pressure on the government and speed up vaccinations, and he paid tribute to those on the front line of containing the pandemic.

But for many, it’s too little, too late – the families of the more than 600,000 people who died from the virus will be wanting to know where this inquiry will lead. Will Bolsonaro have to stand up in court to defend his actions?

The inquiry’s president Omar Aziz said the federal prosecutor had a duty to investigate the evidence gathered these past few months – but not everyone thinks justice will be done. Whether charges are brought against him or not, there is little doubt that Mr Bolsonaro’s popularity has been dented by his handling of the pandemic.

In March, he caused outrage when he told Brazilians to “stop whining” about Covid-19, a day after the country saw a record rise in deaths over a 24-hour period. He has continued to spread misinformation on social media and, on Monday, Facebook removed a video in which the president falsely claimed Covid-19 vaccines were linked to developing Aids.

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