RIO DE JANEIRO – Brazilian police targeted a staunch opponent of President Jair Bolsonaro's push to lift measures to contain the spread of COVID-19 in one of the world's disease hot spots, searching the residence of the Rio de Janeiro state governor on Tuesday.
The federal prosecutor´s office said in a statement that Gov. Wilson Witzel, a former federal judge, was personally targeted by the 12 search and seizure warrants in Rio and Sao Paulo states. An ongoing investigation pointed to irregularities in contracts awarded for the construction of emergency field hospitals in Rio, and involved health officials, police said in a statement.
Witzel has promised eight emergency field hospitals, but only one, near the Maracaná football stadium, has opened.
Witzel expressed indignation at what he called “an act of violence against the democratic state,” and accused the president of being behind the operation.
“An act of political persecution is beginning in this country,” Witzel told reporters. “What happened to me will happen to other governors considered to be enemies.”
While Brazil becomes the new global epicenter for the pandemic, Brazil’s federal and state governments remain at odds over how best to confront the virus.
Bolsonaro has openly challenged many governors’ measures for containing the virus' spread, with Witzel a primary target. The Brazilian leader has accused governors of inciting panic among the population with what he claims are excessive stay-at-home recommendations and restrictions on commerce that he says will wreck the economy and produce worse hardship than the virus.
Bolsonaro, for his part, has been accused of attempting to improperly meddle with the federal police for political or personal ends, a claim made by former Justice Minister Sérgio Moro when he resigned last month. Moro has said Bolsonaro told him on multiple occasions that he wanted to replace the head of the federal police with someone who could facilitate access to investigations and intelligence reports — allegations at the heart of an investigation the Supreme Court authorized on April 27.
The president’s communications director, Fábio Wajngarten, said on Twitter that Witzel was trying to misrepresent the facts by accusing Bolsonaro of using federal police against his opponents.
Carla Zambelli, a federal lawmaker who is close to the president, said in an interview Monday with Rádio Gaúcha that the federal police force was investigating governors for crimes related to coronavirus contracts. While she didn't say which governors were being investigated, Witzel pointed to comments from lawmakers aligned with Bolsonaro as evidence there had been a leak and an attempt to "build a narrative that will never be confirmed.”
Bolsonaro, speaking in the capital Brasilia, denied any prior knowledge of Tuesday's raid.
“I learned about it now,” Bolsonaro told reporters. “Congratulations to the federal police.”
On May 14, federal prosecutors launched a separate operation looking at the states' COVID-19 response, serving 25 search and arrest warrants in Rio and neighboring Minas Gerais states.
Federal prosecutors said then that a group of businessmen had sought to take advantage of the new coronavirus pandemic and diverted some 3.95 million reais (over $725,000) in public resources through contracts for the construction of field hospitals.
Rio is one of the states most affected by COVID-19, with more than 4,000 deaths and almost 40,000 confirmed cases. Brazil has recorded nearly 375,000 cases, second only to the United States, and nearly 23,500 deaths, according to a count by Johns Hopkins University.
“The fragility of the health system and trouble implementing quarantine measures have caused many deaths”, said Mauricio Santoro, a political scientist at the State University of Rio de Janeiro. “The political crisis between the federal and state governments only strengthens the human drama in the pandemic” __
AP photographer Eraldo Peres contributed to this report from Brasilia.