Brazil president to face charge of 'intentional' crimes over COVID-19 response

Agence France-Presse
Brazil president to face charge of 'intentional' crimes over COVID-19 response
In this file photo Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro speaks during the launching event of the Week of Communication at the Planalto Palace in Brasilia, on May 5, 2021.

BRASILIA, Brazil — A Brazilian senate committee will on Wednesday ask that President Jair Bolsonaro be charged with "intentional" crimes over his management of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has left 600,000 of his compatriots dead.

Following six months of eventful hearings, with emotional witness statements and chilling revelations about the use of ineffective medication on "human guinea pigs," the committee of inquiry will deliver its eagerly awaited report.

Renan Calheiros, the centrist senator who is the lead author of the 1,200-page report, has already revealed that he has retained at least nine charges against the far-right president, including "quackery" and "crimes against humanity."

But he announced a last-minute withdrawal of "homicide" and "genocide" charges, after some infighting within the panel.

While the accusations are serious, the process may be just symbolic since Bolsonaro enjoys enough congressional support to avoid the opening of impeachment proceedings.

Likewise, Attorney General Augusto Aras, an ally appointed by Bolsonaro, could shield him from any indictment.

The report could also ask that several ministers be charged, as well as three of Bolsonaro's sons, including Flavio — who sits on the committee.

"This report will seem like a sentence, but the government is calm. You can criticize the president's attitude, but not incriminate him," Fernando Bezerra, head of the government's parliamentary bloc in the senate, told the Uol website.

'We deserve an apology'

The inquiry does not have the power to bring charges, but its revelations could have a serious political impact: the report will be sent to the public prosecutor, the federal court of accounts, and could even be sent to the International Criminal Court in the Hague, where other complaints against Bolsonaro have already been lodged.

It is yet another headache for the president, whose popularity has plummeted to an all-time low and who trails leftist former leader Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in polls ahead of next year's general election.

The report was originally due to be presented on Tuesday but had to be put back 24 hours, eliciting criticism from Brazilian media, which have already started leaking details.

Following testimony from several ministers, top government officials, and business and hospital managers, it was the turn of the families of Covid victims to present their statements to the committee on Monday.

"We deserve an apology from the highest authority in the state. It's not a question of politics, we're talking about lives," Marcio Antonio Silva, a taxi driver who lost his 25-year-old son to Covid, told the panel, holding back tears.

"What we've seen is the antithesis of what we expected from the president of the republic," said Antonio Carlos Costa, president of the Rio de Paz NGO. "We've never seen him shed tears of compassion, nor express his condolences for the Brazilian people in mourning."

'They must be punished'

On Monday, the committee also heard the harrowing testimony of a nurse in Manaus who saw dozens of patients dying and had to take care of her sister's four children after she also succumbed to the virus.

The committee investigated the government over the crippling lack of oxygen in the northern city of Manaus during the worst moments of the pandemic, and also the delays in buying vaccines, Bolsonaro's anti-lockdown speeches, and his original belittling of what he called a "little flu."

Senators subsequently discovered irregularities in the acquisition of vaccines, something that generated strong suspicions of corruption.

Another branch of the investigation focused on the relationship between Brasilia and private health insurers accused of promoting "early treatment" with medications such as hydroxychloroquine, which has been scientifically proven to be ineffective.

One of those insurers, Prevent Senior, is accused of having carried out such treatment on patients without their prior knowledge, and to have put pressure on doctors to prescribe it for "human guinea pigs."

"The committee report clearly aims to result in the sanctioning of those responsible, and there are a lot. We cannot allow ourselves to not punish them," Omar Aziz, the committee's president, said on Tuesday.

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