Brazil Senate’s Pandemic Panel, in Last-Minute Shift, Softened Criminal Recommendations on Bolsonaro

BRASÍLIA, Brazil — On Tuesday night, a Brazilian congressional panel was hours away from revealing on national television its recommendation that President Jair Bolsonaro should face homicide and genocide charges for his mishandling of the pandemic, which has killed 600,000 Brazilians. Then a few senators had second thoughts.

Even though they opposed Mr. Bolsonaro and felt he was effectively responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths, these senators felt that the plans to recommend such charges were on shaky legal ground and might not hold up with prosecutors and judges, said four senators on the panel.

Suddenly the highly anticipated report — which still recommended other serious criminal charges against Mr. Bolsonaro — had lost support from what had been the seven-member majority of the panel’s 11 voting members.

The leaders of the panel, which had been investigating the government’s handling of the pandemic for six months, in an inquiry that riveted the country, called a late-night meeting at one senator’s apartment. For three and a half hours, they debated over duck and rice. Two senators argued that the crimes of homicide and genocide were so severe — and difficult to prove in court — that they could weaken the report’s prospects of carrying legal consequences for Mr. Bolsonaro.

Alessandro Vieira, one senator who was particularly passionate that the charges would sabotage their investigation, said in an interview that he dove into the technicalities of Brazilian law to explain why they should change the charges.

The report’s author, Senator Renan Calheiros, one of Brazil’s longest-serving senators and the former Senate president, eventually realized that he would have to remove the charges to ensure the report would pass the committee and head to Brazil’s attorney general for possible prosecution of the president. Instead, the report would charge Mr. Bolsonaro with “crimes against humanity,” among other crimes.

The last-minute shift, after some of the report’s details had already had leaked, reflect the polarized and complicated political landscape under Mr. Bolsonaro, whose popularity has plummeted since he took office in 2019 but who still retains enormous power, making his adversaries tread warily.

“The report has to be very strong, very devastating, but it has to be very solid legally,” Senator Humberto Costa, one of the senators who form the majority in the committee, told reporters in the Senate before a nationally televised hearing on the report on Wednesday. “What we can’t do is present a report that the first prosecutor who looks at it says is worthless.”

The senators were concerned that a homicide charge could require a prosecutor to name individual victims, he said, and that the genocide charge, which was based on the pandemic’s devastating impact on Brazil’s Indigenous groups, might not fit the standards of the International Criminal Court.

The congressional report released on Wednesday accuses Mr. Bolsonaro of intentionally allowing the coronavirus to spread unchecked across Brazil in an attempt to achieve herd immunity and return Latin America’s largest country to normal life. The committee’s report blames the president’s policies for more than half of the 600,000 deaths from Covid-19 in Brazil, the second-highest total behind the United States, where more than 720,000 have died.

Mr. Bolsonaro’s office did not respond to a request for comment, but the report’s detractors have been vocal. The report “frames it as if he created the pandemic,” Marcos Rogério, one of the four voting senators on the panel who support the president, told reporters on Wednesday. “It’s a piece of fiction.”

Pedro Abramovay, a former national secretary of justice and the Latin America director for the philanthropic group Open Society Foundations, said that despite the late changes, the report was still bad news for Mr. Bolsonaro. “Again, we are talking about crimes against humanity.”

The panel’s majority includes senators from the left to the center of the political spectrum, and “they wanted to reach an agreement that would show the report was not just a manifesto from the opposition, but is a very solid legal document,” he said.

The changes on the eve of the report’s release left the seven-member majority of senators on the panel reacting defensively on Wednesday, arguing that they had not softened their stance and were not going easy on Mr. Bolsonaro.

“This does not represent any type of concession to Mr. Bolsonaro,” Mr. Costa said. The nine recommended charges against Mr. Bolsonaro would carry 50 to 150 years in prison, he said. “So whoever says that this report was light on Bolsonaro either didn’t read it or didn’t understand it.”

Senator Omar Aziz, the president of the panel, sent a New York Times reporter a political meme that said Mr. Bolsonaro could face 78 years in prison if convicted of the recommended charges. “You think that’s a little?”

Mr. Calheiros, the report’s author, told The Times on Monday that the seven senators who formed the panel’s majority had effectively agreed on the report he had prepared, which included the recommended homicide and genocide charges. The Times and several Brazilian news outlets reported on the panel’s plans to charge Mr. Bolsonaro with such crimes. Then some senators protested.

Mr. Calheiros read parts of the report in a hearing on Wednesday that was carried live on the nation’s news networks. At one point, he addressed the last-minute changes, and said that he had ultimately agreed with his colleagues’ concerns, which he described as “technical arguments.”

Leonardo Coelho contributed reporting.

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