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Bolsonaro faces investigation for inspiring riot

President Jail Bolsonaro of Brazil speaks at his re-election campaign rally in Rio de Janeiro on Oct. 14, 2022. (Maria Magdalena Arrellaga/The New York Times)
President Jail Bolsonaro of Brazil speaks at his re-election campaign rally in Rio de Janeiro on Oct. 14, 2022. (Maria Magdalena Arrellaga/The New York Times)

RIO DE JANEIRO — Brazil’s Supreme Court said it would investigate former president Jair Bolsonaro for inspiring the far-right mob that invaded and ransacked the country’s Congress, Supreme Court, and presidential offices this week, a swift escalation in the probe that shows the former leader could soon face legal consequences for an extremist movement that he helped build.


In a decision late Friday, Alexandre de Moraes, a Supreme Court justice, approved a request from federal prosecutors to include Bolsonaro in a rapidly expanding investigation into the anti-democratic riots on Jan. 8.


Moraes, who has emerged as one of the nation’s most powerful — and controversial — figures in recent months, said Bolsonaro’s past questioning of Brazil’s election systems and his attacks on Brazil’s institutions, including the Supreme Court, “may have contributed, in a very relevant way, to the occurrence of criminal and terrorist acts,” including Sunday’s storming of government buildings.


The decision illustrates the aggressive tack that Brazilian authorities have taken in response to the riots. While law enforcement quickly arrested more than 1,000 rioters, the authorities have said they are also seeking to prosecute the businesspeople who they believe helped finance the protest, the security officials who they say allowed the violence to unfold, and now the former president who they contend inspired the anger and false beliefs that fueled the mob.


Frederick Wassef, Bolsonaro’s lawyer, said in a statement that his client had always publicly criticized illegal acts and defended democracy.


“President Jair Bolsonaro vehemently repudiates the acts of vandalism and depredation of public property committed by those infiltrating the demonstration,” Wassef said. “He has never had any relationship with or participation in these spontaneous social movements carried out by the population.”


Bolsonaro’s role in the riot is likely to be a tricky case for prosecutors. There is little question he inspired the roughly 5,000 people who were at the protest that turned violent Sunday. They carried signs that referenced conspiracy theories about Brazil’s electronic voting machines that Bolsonaro has long peddled, and they echoed Bolsonaro’s complaints about Moraes and President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, his chief political rivals.


Most significantly, Bolsonaro spent years spreading baseless claims that Brazil’s election system is vulnerable to fraud — despite reviews by independent security experts showing otherwise — and that the left was bent on stealing the presidency.


Those words had an effect. In the run-up to the election, three-quarters of Bolsonaro’s supporters told pollsters they had little to no faith in Brazil’s election system. So when their candidate lost, it was not a surprise that so many doubted the results.


Yet Bolsonaro’s postelection actions contrast with those of former President Donald Trump, who actively fought the results of the 2020 vote and encouraged his supporters to fight its certification, before the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. Bolsonaro has largely stepped into the shadows since losing the October election, and he even recently suggested that his followers move on.


While he has never unequivocally conceded, and his party did challenge the result — only to be swiftly rebuked by Moraes — Bolsonaro authorized the transfer of power. And then, on Dec. 30, he decamped for Florida, leaving him thousands of miles away when the mob invaded.


Bolsonaro has also tried to distance himself from his extremist followers, who, after his loss, tried to use roadblocks to shut down the country, camped outside military bases to demand a military coup, and finally stormed the heart of government.


In the hours after the riot, Lula said Bolsonaro “triggered” the mob. “This is also his responsibility,” the president said.


Bolsonaro criticized the riot, saying on Twitter that peaceful demonstrations are part of democracy, but that “destruction and invasions of public buildings, like what occurred today,” are not. He also rejected Lula’s accusations, saying they were “without proof.”


Bolsonaro has been in Florida on an extended trip that he had hoped would help cool off the various investigations into his activity as president as Lula took office, according to a close friend who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private plans. Now he is facing his most serious investigation yet.


Bolsonaro is the subject of five other Supreme Court inquiries, including for his handling of the pandemic; accusations of spreading misinformation; and a leak of classified information when he discussed a hack into the country’s election agency to support his arguments that Brazil’s voting system is unsafe.


A State Department spokesperson declined to discuss Bolsonaro’s visa status but said that anyone on a diplomatic visa and no longer engaged in official business must leave the United States or request a different type of visa within 30 days.


Mauro Vieira, Brazil’s foreign minister, told reporters that the government had not yet approached the U.S. government about the former president’s visa status.


Bolsonaro told CNN, Brasil, this week that he would return to Brazil sooner than expected to deal with health problems. He spent time in a Florida hospital this week for abdominal pain related to a stabbing he suffered in 2018 while on the campaign trail.


The Attorney General’s Office asked the Supreme Court, which is also Brazil’s highest criminal court, to investigate Bolsonaro because he shared a post on Facebook Jan. 10 from a state prosecutor who falsely claimed Lula had stolen the October election. Bolsonaro deleted the post the following day.


The federal prosecutor argued that Bolsonaro’s enormous influence means that such posts could effectively incite crimes, and thus the court should investigate how his past actions and comments might have influenced the riot.


Moraes said that the Jan. 10 post matched a pattern of behavior for which he is already being investigated, and thus it warranted his inclusion in the probe. Moraes said Bolsonaro would be investigated for inciting a crime, which could carry a prison term of up to six months.


That it was Moraes who is pulling Bolsonaro into the Jan. 8 investigation is likely to fuel further criticism, particularly on Brazil’s right, that the judge is overstepping his authority for political reasons. Moraes, who is also Brazil’s elections chief, became the most effective check on Bolsonaro’s power in the final stretch of his presidency after he opened various investigations into Bolsonaro’s allies and supporters, as well as into the president himself.


In many cases, Moraes also took advantage of expanded authority, granted to him by his fellow judges, to go after what he said were attacks against Brazil’s democracy. At his lead, the Supreme Court jailed several supporters of Bolsonaro without a trial for what the court said were threats against the country’s institutions. Moraes has also overseen a broad crackdown on right-wing voices on social media, including several members of Congress and prominent media figures and business leaders.


The Supreme Court investigation into the riot is also probing the role of Ibaneis Rocha, the district governor, and Anderson Torres, its security chief, who were responsible for keeping Sunday’s protest peaceful. Moraes accused them of negligence or even active complicity by assigning too little security to the demonstration.


Moraes suspended Rocha from his job as governor for at least 90 days, and he approved an arrest warrant from the federal police for Torres.


Torres is Bolsonaro’s former justice minister and a leading voice behind claims that the election system is flawed. This week, authorities found in his home a draft of a decree that, if signed by Bolsonaro, would have suspended Brazil’s elections agency, in a bid that appeared to be designed to force a new vote. Torres, who is also in Florida on vacation, has suggested he had received the document from another person and was planning to throw it away.


This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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