Jair Bolsonaro won Brazil’s last presidential election pledging to clean up politics, and since taking office in 2019, he had said at least 237 times that his government had “zero corruption”.
Those assertions resonated with supporters of Bolsonaro as he faced a tight runoff for the presidency against the once-imprisoned former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
Supporters of Jair Bolsonaro react after it became apparent he had not won the presidential election.Credit:Getty
In recent weeks, however, Bolsonaro worried about the prospect of prison himself, according to two senior officials who heard those concerns from the president and spoke anonymously to describe private conversations.
Despite his assertions, Bolsonaro and his inner circle have faced investigations on accusations including the embezzlement of public funds, theft of staff wages and mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic. The inquiries had been staved off or blocked so far, given his political influence and presidential immunity.
But that may change now that Bolsonaro lost the presidential election.
“After leaving office, there is no immunity, none, for crimes committed by a former president in Brazil,” said Eloísa Machado, a law professor at Fundação Getulio Vargas, a university and research organization in São Paulo, Brazil.
Brazilian law leaves less room for interpretation on the issue than in the United States, where former president Donald Trump’s assertions of presidential immunity have helped him manoeuvre around investigations and lawsuits.
In Brazil, only the attorney general can investigate an acting president, and only the Supreme Court can prosecute one, which “definitely helps prevent investigations,” according to Davi Tangerino, a law professor at the State University of Rio de Janeiro.
In 2019, Bolsonaro appointed Augusto Aras as attorney general, ignoring a two-decade tradition of federal prosecutors’ choosing their chief. Since then, the attorney general’s office has shelved more than 100 inquiry requests, most related to Bolsonaro’s chaotic and possibly corrupt response to the pandemic and his attacks on the Supreme Court.
“The attorney general gave him a shield from any liability,” Machado said.
In addition, Bolsonaro and two of his sons have been implicated in allegations that they took portions of staff members’ wages during their terms as congressmen. Last year, the attorney general’s office opened inquiries into the president’s cases, but there has been no movement on them.
A couple of months ago, the family finances were thrown into the spotlight with reporting by the news site UOL indicating that half the family’s 107 real estate purchases had been bought with cash. Prosecutors in Rio de Janeiro are examining whether 25 of those were purchased with money siphoned from staff wages.
The president had also managed to keep a tight hold on Congress, which has deferred more than 130 impeachment requests. Brazilian news outlets Estadão and Piauí reported that, in exchange, his administration had allowed a handful of members of Congress to grant more than $US8 billion for their regional electoral bases. A couple of weeks ago, federal police arrested two people linked to this alleged embezzlement scheme, dubbed “the secret budget.”
To shield himself and his circle from scrutiny, Bolsonaro had also extended protections against dozens of requests for information, imposing 100-year secrecy classifications on data like the names of people who visited the presidential palace and communications from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Da Silva, who went to prison for corruption, has used the issue in his campaign, vowing, “On my first day of government, I will lift these secrecies.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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