A Brazilian Senate report has recommended pursuing crimes against humanity and other charges against President Jair Bolsonaro over his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The 66-year-old leader quickly rejected the accusations on Wednesday, insisting that he was “guilty of nothing”.
More than 600,000 people in Brazil have died from COVID-19, the second-highest death toll in the world after the United States.
The decision to proceed with the charges will depend on Brazil’s prosecutor-general, a Bolsonaro appointee and ally.
Bolsonaro has consistently downplayed the threat of COVID-19 and touted misinformation and unproven treatments while ignoring international health guidelines on mask use and public activity.
The 11-member Senate panel examined whether his actions caused many of Brazil’s COVID-19 deaths.
In a nearly 1,200-page report, the committee called for Bolsonaro’s indictment on charges ranging from charlatanism and inciting crime to misuse of public funds and crimes against humanity.
By insisting on so-called early treatment drugs like the anti-malarial medication hydroxychloroquine as “practically the only government policy to fight the pandemic,” the report states that “Jair Bolsonaro strongly collaborated for COVID-19′s spread in Brazilian territory and, as such, showed himself to be the main person responsible for the errors committed by the federal government during the pandemic.”
Bolsonaro remains defiant
The far-right Brazilian leader has repeatedly described the Senate investigation as politically motivated and aimed at sabotaging him.
He has denied any wrongdoing.
“We know we are not to blame for anything. We know we did the right thing from the very first moment,” he said from the northeastern state of Ceara.
The office of Prosecutor-General Augusto Aras said in a statement that the report would be carefully analysed once it was received. Amid concerns Aras could shield the president from indictment, Senator Omar Aziz, who chaired the committee, told Al Jazeera there was enough evidence to put Bolsonaro behind bars.
¨If the Attorney General does nothing, we will go to the Supreme Court and also to the International Court of Justice at The Hague,” he said. “We will continue to put pressure to make sure justice is done.”
In addition to Bolsonaro, the report recommends charges for current and former members of his administration, dozens of allies, the president’s three sons who are politicians and two companies.
The committee “collected evidence that abundantly demonstrated that the federal government was silent and chose to act in a non-technical and reckless manner,” the report stated.
The document can be modified before the 11-member senatorial committee considers endorsing it; a vote is set for October 26. The committee’s approval is needed before the report goes to the office of the prosecutor-general.
Inquiry’s political impact
Regardless of whether the report leads to charges, it is expected to heighten criticism of the divisive president, whose approval ratings have slumped ahead of his 2022 reelection campaign. The investigation itself has for months provided a drumbeat of damaging allegations.
“The major impact of the investigation is political, because it generated tons of news that certainly will be used by campaign strategists next year,” said Thiago de Aragao, director of strategy at political consulting firm Arko Advice.
During the six-month inquiry, senators obtained thousands of documents and heard testimony from more than 60 people. As a result, scandals came to light, such as Bolsonaro allegedly turning a blind eye to possible corruption in a deal to buy coronavirus vaccines.
More recently, the senators heard heart-rending tales from family members of COVID-19 victims.
On Monday, Giovanna Gomes Mendes da Silva, 19, spoke tearfully of her parents’ deaths and having to take custody of her 10-year-old sister. Her testimony so affected the sign language interpreter for the Senate’s broadcast channel that he struggled to contain his emotion and had to be replaced halfway through.
“We lost the people we loved the most,” da Silva told senators. “And I saw that I needed my sister, and that she needed me. I leaned on her, just like she leaned on me.”
An earlier draft of the Senate report had recommended the president be indicted for homicide and genocide as well, though the two proposed charges were scrapped in the face of opposition from committee members and concern that bombastic claims could undermine the report’s credibility.
Still, the report concluded that the government “deliberately exposed the population to a concrete risk of mass infection,” influenced by a group of unofficial advisers who advocated for pursuing herd immunity long after many experts said that was not a viable option.