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Brazilian Leader’s Pandemic Handling Draws Explosive Allegation: Homicide

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BRASÍLIA, Brazil —A Brazilian congressional panel is set to recommend mass homicide charges against President Jair Bolsonaro, asserting that he intentionally let the coronavirus rip through the country and kill hundreds of thousands in a failed bid to achieve herd immunity and revive Latin America’s largest economy.

A report from a congressional investigation, excerpts from which were viewed by The New York Times ahead of its scheduled release this week, also recommends criminal charges against 69 other people, including three of Mr. Bolsonaro’s sons and numerous current and former government officials.

The extraordinary accusations appear in a nearly 1,200-page report that effectively blames Mr. Bolsonaro’s policies for the deaths of more than 300,000 Brazilians, half of the nation’s coronavirus death toll, and urges the Brazilian authorities to imprison the president, according to the excerpts from the report and interviews with two of the committee’s senators.

Employees of a cemetery in São Paulo carrying the coffin of a person who died from Covid-19 in April.Credit…Adriana Zehbrauskas for The New York Times

“Many of these deaths were preventable,” Renan Calheiros, the centrist Brazilian senator who was the lead author of the report, said in an interview in his office late Monday. “I am personally convinced that he is responsible for escalating the slaughter.”

It is unclear at best whether the report will lead to criminal charges. But it may prove a major escalation in the political challenges confronting Mr. Bolsonaro, a polarizing leader who took office in 2019, faces re-election next year and is suffering falling popularity.

From the outset of the pandemic, Mr. Bolsonaro has gone out of his way to minimize the threat of the virus. As countries around the world locked down, and his own people began filling hospitals, he encouraged mass gatherings and discouraged masks. An avowed vaccine skeptic, he lashed out at any who dared criticize him as irresponsible.

Those actions, the report argued, amounted to mass homicide.

Mr. Bolsonaro’s office did not respond to requests for comment, but the president has criticized the Senate’s investigation into his handling of the pandemic as politically motivated. “Did you know that I was indicted for homicide today?” he asked supporters after the first details leaked out. He later called Mr. Calheiros “dirty.”

The report’s findings culminate a six-month investigation by a special Covid-19 Senate committee that held more than 50 hearings. They became must-see television in Brazil, featuring testimony about bribery schemes and disinformation operations. One lawmaker wore a bulletproof vest to testify that some vaccine purchases included kickbacks.

Written by a small group of senators after a wide-ranging investigation, the report also accuses Mr. Bolsonaro of “genocide” against Indigenous groups in the Amazon, where the virus decimated populations for months after hospitals there ran out of oxygen. Those allegations are unlikely to gain traction with Brazilian prosecutors, according to legal experts, and seem certain to further divide an already fractured nation.

The report found that the president had pushed unproven drugs like hydroxychloroquine well after they had been shown to be ineffective for treating Covid-19 and that his administration caused a monthslong delay in the distribution of vaccines in Brazil by ignoring more than 100 emails from Pfizer. Instead, his government opted to overpay for an unapproved vaccine from India, the report said, a deal that was later canceled over suspicions of graft.

Mr. Calheiros defended the committee’s plans to recommend charges of homicide and “Indigenous genocide” against Mr. Bolsonaro, saying they were accurate under a technical reading of Brazilian law. He framed the homicide charge as murder “by omission” — meaning that Mr. Bolsonaro allowed deaths he was responsible for preventing.

Mr. Bolsonaro watching a military parade in August.Credit…Victor Moriyama for The New York Times

Creomar De Souza, an independent political analyst in Brasília, said that while the committee’s hearings revealed a mishandling of the pandemic, “I didn’t see any concrete element that was strong enough to accuse the president of genocide or homicide.” He said seven senators who oppose the president effectively control the 11-member committee.

The committee was scheduled to release the report on Wednesday and then vote on it a week later. The group of seven opposition senators generally agree on the report, Mr. Calheiros said, suggesting that it would be approved. The Times viewed what was described as a final draft, though the details could still change before its release.

One of the four senators on the committee who support the president is his son, Flavio Bolsonaro. The report that he will vote on next week will recommend criminal charges against him, too.

In addition to the homicide and genocide charges, the report recommends nine additional charges against Mr. Bolsonaro, including forging documents and “crimes against humanity.”

If the report is approved, Brazil’s attorney general will have 30 days to decide whether to pursue criminal charges against Mr. Bolsonaro and the others named in the report. Brazil’s lower house in Congress would also have to approve charges against Mr. Bolsonaro. Mr. De Souza said that outcome was unlikely: Mr. Bolsonaro appointed the attorney general, who remains his supporter, and his supporters control the lower house.

Mr. Calheiros said that if the attorney general did not pursue charges against the president, the senate committee would seek other potential legal avenues, including in Brazil’s Supreme Court and the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

If Mr. Bolsonaro is formally charged, he will be suspended from office for 180 days while the Supreme Court decides the case, said Irapuã Santana, a law professor at Rio de Janeiro State University. If convicted, he would be blocked from the presidency for eight years and face years in prison, Mr. Santana said. There is no death penalty in Brazil.

Mr. Bolsonaro, Brazil’s 38th president, would not be the first to face homicide accusations. Brazil’s 13th president, Washington Luis, was arrested and charged with murder in 1930 after an opposition politician was assassinated, Mr. Santana said. Once Mr. Luis was deposed the military took control and installed a political rival as president.

The three presidents who preceded Mr. Bolsonaro have all had their own legal issues, too.

Michael Temer, a center-right president, was arrested on corruption charges that were later dropped. Dilma Rousseff, Brazil’s first female president, was impeached in 2016 on accusations she had manipulated the federal budget. And Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, a leftist who led the country from 2003 to 2010, served 19 months in prison on corruption charges. They were dropped this year and he is now leading Mr. Bolsonaro in the polls in the 2022 presidential race.

Supporters of a Bolsonaro political opponent, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, at a protest this month.Credit…Victor Moriyama for The New York Times

The committee’s report represents Mr. Bolsonaro’s biggest fight yet with Brazil’s Congress, though with the election nearing, it is likely to be far from the last.

As his poll numbers decline, Mr. Bolsonaro is seeking to push tax changes and a government overhaul through Congress to shore up his pitch to voters. There is also a looming fight over the federal debt and another committee investigating allegations that the president and his supporters spread online misinformation..

Although more than half of the country now disapproves of the job Mr. Bolsonaro is doing as president, he retains control in the lower house of Congress and has enough support in the Senate to block the opposition from a majority.

Mr. Bolsonaro called the virus a “little flu.” He joked that vaccines would turn people into alligators, prompting many Brazilians to get their vaccine shots in alligator costumes. And when he attended a United Nations meeting last month, New York’s vaccination rules for restaurants forced him and Brazil’s health minister to eat pizza on the sidewalk because Mr. Bolsonaro remains unvaccinated. The health minister tested positive for Covid-19 days later.

Mr. Bolsonaro took a different tack when it came to hydroxychloroquine, an antimalarial medicine once thought to be a possible coronavirus treatment. After he tested positive last year, Mr. Bolsonaro posted a video of himself gulping the antimalarial pills, although scientists had warned against it.

The Senate committee found that Mr. Bolsonaro and his allies had systematically pushed unproven drugs instead of practices that worked, such as social distancing and masks.

In January, the Brazilian government took down a health app it created after researchers found it nearly always recommended unproven drugs like hydroxychloroquine and Ivermectin, an anti-parasitic drug for animals. Mr. Calheiros said that the Senate committee found that the federal government had spent millions of dollars on such drugs, even forcing Brazil’s armed forces to mass-produce them.

Mr. Bolsonaro’s support for hydroxychloroquine and other unproven drugs persisted longer than it did among other world leaders who also once backed them. Former President Donald J. Trump, for instance, promoted hydroxychloroquine for months at the start of the pandemic, but largely stopped talking about it last year as the science became clearer.F

An image on one of his social media accounts was said to show Mr. Bolsonaro taking hydroxychloroquine after testing positive for the virus.

Mr. Bolsonaro’s views on the pandemic were amplified by a coordinated network of conservative pundits, social-media influencers and anonymous online profiles, who railed against lockdowns and masks, pushed unproven drugs, questioned vaccines and claimed that Brazil’s death count was exaggerated, according to the report.

The Senate committee accused Mr. Bolsonaro and his three eldest sons, who all hold elected office, of having constituted the “command nucleus” of the network. The committee’s report also corroborated stories in the Brazilian press that Mr. Bolsonaro’s government operated a so-called Cabinet of Hate out of government offices that directed online campaigns supporting the president’s goals and attacking his enemies.

Leonardo Coelho contributed reporting.

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